[iw] - Homeland Security Considers Outside Firms to Analyze Social Media After Jan. 6 Failure

Richard Forno rforno at infowarrior.org
Mon Aug 16 08:38:10 EDT 2021

Homeland Security Considers Outside Firms to Analyze Social Media After Jan. 6 Failure
Rachael Levy

The Department of Homeland Security is considering hiring private companies to analyze public social media for warning signs of extremist violence, spurring debate within the agency over how to monitor for such threats while protecting Americans’ civil liberties.

The effort, which remains under discussion and hasn’t received approval or funding, would involve sifting through large flows of internet traffic to help identify online narratives that might provide leads on developing attacks, whether from home or abroad.

The initiative comes after the nation’s intelligence community failed to sufficiently identify and share signs of the threats that led to the assault on the U.S. Capitol by a mob of Donald Trump supporters on Jan. 6.

John Cohen, a top DHS official, is spearheading the project, which he describes as part of an upgrade to the department’s capabilities in social-media analysis. Marshaling the expertise of outside companies and ramping up internal capabilities are central to that effort, he said.

“What we’re talking about now is dramatically expanding our focus,” Mr. Cohen said in an interview.

Mr. Cohen’s push has sparked internal debates in DHS and elsewhere in the Biden administration over longstanding tensions between civil liberties and security efforts. Some officials in the agency and the White House worry about governmental overreach, say people familiar with the deliberations, a concern that civil-liberties advocates share.

People familiar with DHS’s effort say the department needs to improve its capabilities after its intelligence arm failed to report social-media posts ahead of the Capitol attack, a lapse that has since been the subject of congressional probes.

The basis of DHS’s legal authority for the proposed expanded effort remains murky, said one person involved in the discussions, in part because “the definition of what is public is not necessarily settled.”

Adam Schwartz, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit supporting digital rights, said the organization is wary of any government effort to “gobble up” more social-media data. That information could potentially be stored forever and later mined to find leads on crimes, he said.

“We do not support an expansion of social-media surveillance in the name of stopping the next attack on the Capitol,” Mr. Schwartz said.

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