DHS Sees Opportunity in Social Media, Rights Groups See Risks

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has made it a priority to collect and analyze the social media data of thousands of people, but the reasoning behind these efforts is not always straightforward.

by / June 5, 2019
Shutterstock/Keith Homan

For many law enforcement officials, social media platforms have become some of the best tools for open source intelligence gathering. Police use the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat to collect data on potential targets, carry out undercover investigations, and analyze relationships between criminals and suspects.   

Perhaps the biggest collector of this kind of data today is the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which sucks up the data through a variety of methods, programs and searches carried out by its numerous sub-agencies — often for investigations concerning foreign nationals or immigrants.  

These collection efforts have concerned civil liberty activists, however, for their severity of scope and vagueness of purpose.

The Brennan Center for Justice, a think tank connected to NYU Law School, recently compiled a report on the federal agency, sounding the alarm about the potential civil rights implications of its various collection efforts.      

“Increasingly, DHS is vacuuming up social media information from a variety of sources, ranging from travelers’ electronic devices to commercial databases, and using it to make decisions about who gets to come to the United States and the level of screening to which travelers are subjected,” the report states.  

The report notes that the extent of DHS’ efforts are largely unknown, and that what can be observed is pieced together through disparate news reports and successful FOIA requests. 

What is observable is the diversity of these efforts, however. DHS sub-agencies like the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) all have different programs and methods of collection, according to the report. And these methods are consistently evolving. 

Some of these include: 

  • People applying for visas will soon have their social media information vetted by officials with DHS and the State Department, according to the report. A recently approved proposal means that the State Department will "begin collecting from nearly all visa applicants their social media identifiers associated with any of 20 listed social media platforms," including Facebook, Google and Twitter.  
  • The U.S. Border Patrol conducts routine social media checks of people attempting to enter the country at the border. These checks will sometimes extend to a traveler’s friends and family. The searches can be quite extensive. ICE officials will search "a traveler’s smartphone at or near the border [and] can download the entirety of her Facebook and Twitter accounts and go through them later," according to the report.  
  • Data has been used not merely for criminal investigations but has aided in the surveillance of political activism, as well. The report lists examples in which social media handles were collected and analyzed under such circumstances — including anti-Trump protests in New York City, activists tied to migrant caravan advocacy and other immigrant-related activism.   

Concerns expressed about this kind of collection and analysis are diverse, but a consistent refrain is the fear these processes will disproportionately affect minority groups. In particular, the Brennan report discusses the disproportionate way in which Muslim groups and immigrants are targeted for analysis and surveillance. 

“Personal information gleaned from social media posts has been used to target dissent and subject religious and ethnic minorities to enhanced vetting and surveillance,” the report states.   

This information is also collected and analyzed for vague reasons, according to the report. Many data searches are conducted under the banner of “national security” concerns, while these concerns often remain vague and unclear. 

More problematically, once the data is collected it is often distributed to other programs and used for different reasons than it was originally intended — sparking fears of confusion and data misuse, according to the report. 

Still, some security experts see social media analysis as a significant tool that will help law enforcement agencies with their investigations in the future. Because of the newness of the technology, however, there may be a learning curve in terms of creating a framework in which such surveillance can be deployed in a way that does not run afoul of the nation's "laws and cultural norms," according to a recent report from the RAND Corporation

"Social media analysis can provide important information about adversaries, supporting communities on either side of a conflict, or other key populations," the report states. "It can also inform efforts to target messages to particular audiences or influence the perceptions, decisions, or behaviors of a group." 

Lucas Ropek Staff Writer

Lucas Ropek is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has worked as a newspaper reporter and writer in Massachusetts and New York. He received his Bachelor's degree in English from Kenyon College in Ohio. He lives in Northern California.

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