Biden team may partner with private firms to surveil suspected domestic terrorists online
May 3, 2021. Summarized by summa-bot.
Compression ratio: 21%. 2 min read.
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: Pro-Trump supporters storm the U.S. Capitol following a rally with President Donald Trump on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. Trump supporters gathered in the nation's capital today to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden's Electoral College victory over President Trump in the 2020 election. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images)
The Biden administration is considering using outside firms to track extremist chatter by Americans online, an effort that would expand the government's ability to gather intelligence but could draw criticism over surveillance of US citizens.
A source familiar with the effort said it is not about decrypting data but rather using outside entities who can legally access these private groups to gather large amounts of information that could help DHS identify key narratives as they emerge.
It would, however, involve empowering a unit at DHS that is already under fierce scrutiny for its bungled handling of the Portland riots last summer, an episode that included collecting intelligence reports on journalists and unmasking private citizens, according to a source familiar with a recent internal report on the matter.
DHS officials are exploring ways to enhance the department's information gathering within the bounds of its current authorities, multiple sources told CNN.
"There was only limited awareness before January 6 of what violent extremists were planning through social media," said Tom Warrick, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who served as DHS Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counterterrorism Policy from 2008 until 2019 and has decades of experience as a career government official at agencies including the State Department.
Outsourcing some information gathering to outside firms would give DHS the benefit of tactics that it isn't legally able to do in-house, such as using false personas to gain access to private groups used by suspected extremists, sources say.
The department is also working to expand its ability to collect information from public-facing social media sites where users' posts offered clear warning signs about potential violence ahead of the January 6 attack, but were either ignored or underestimated by security officials prior to that date.
If they can find willing external partners that would help provide access to private groups on these encrypted apps, DHS and its federal partners, including the FBI, would be able to legally identify potential domestic terrorists and access information that could inform investigative efforts, a source familiar with the effort told CNN.
But if the DHS could help provide a broad picture of who was perpetuating the "narratives" of concern, the FBI could theoretically use that pool of information to focus on specific individuals if there is enough evidence of a potential crime to legally do so, the source added, noting the two agencies are working closely with one another in this area.