US steps up tracking domestic extremism on social media


WASHINGTON (AP) – The Department of Homeland Security plans to step up social media monitoring as part of an increased focus on domestic violent extremism. While the move is a response to the weaknesses exposed by the murderous insurgency on the U.S. Capitol, it raises concerns about undermining Americans’ civil liberties.

Key people appointed by President Joe Biden have called white supremacists the biggest security threat to the country and are pushing for more intelligence gathering. Defenders of communities of color and groups that were previously subject to increased surveillance, sometimes illegally, are keeping a close watch.

DHS has announced in recent weeks the creation of a new office in its intelligence arm focused on domestic extremism and a new center to facilitate “local prevention cadres” who, according to a statement, can better identify people. violence.”

The overall effort is in its early stages. The department is exploring partnerships with tech companies, universities and nonprofit groups to access publicly available data. DHS will also train analysts on social media tracking and how to distinguish a threat from the exercise of free speech.

DHS officials say the goal is to better monitor and respond to intrigues posted on social media that could incite violence. With a more focused effort, the department could better assess national threats and act to protect potential targets from attacks, officials said.

“It is really important that people understand that in this administration we do not see the mission of homeland security as police thinking,” said John Cohen, deputy secretary of the counterterrorism and threat prevention department. . “It’s about protecting yourself against acts of violence.”

Cohen noted that the agency understands that its success could be in jeopardy “if what we are doing is found to be constitutionally incorrect.”

Civil rights activists are concerned about following the plan closely. Abed Ayoub, legal director of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, said he had spoken with officials in the Biden administration before and since taking office about their efforts to combat white extremism .

“These programs almost always end up targeting black and brown communities,” Ayoub said. He added: “It looks like the focus … will be on white supremacy.”

Republicans have also raised concerns about cracks in the traditional firewall between domestic and foreign intelligence. DHS and FBI have national missions while the CIA is largely prohibited from spying on US citizens. But all intelligence agencies, including the intelligence arm of Homeland Security, report to Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, whose office compiled a threat assessment released earlier this year highlighting the threat from the white extremism.

U.S. Representative Chris Stewart, R-Utah, expressed concern that information collected by the CIA is being used indirectly by agencies like DHS and the FBI. Stewart also questioned the department’s plans to contract with private companies for social media data.

“I understand that there are concerns about domestic terrorism,” said Stewart. “I support these efforts as long as they do not cross the barrier between the use of intelligence assets that are supposed to focus on foreign threats.”

He added, “You can’t backdoor saying, ‘We won’t do it, but we will pay Google to do it for us. “”

Cohen, who previously worked for DHS under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said the department would not use private companies to collect intelligence it would otherwise be prohibited from collecting. “We cannot hire them to do things that we cannot do under our own authority,” he said.

The January 6 riot, in which a mob seeking to stop Biden’s certification of victory ransacked the Capitol, exposed intelligence weaknesses in law enforcement. Police at the scene were not equipped to stop the rioters, many of whom were carrying bear bombs, metal pipes and even guns.

It quickly became apparent that the FBI had issued an advance warning that some extremists were speculating about “war” on Capitol Hill. And public social media posts have shown people expressing support for attempts to stop Electoral College certification, including using force.

DHS officials say Jan. 6 stressed the government needs to better assess and act on information that may be readily available on public sites, but different from traditional forms of intelligence.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas insisted that officials from the department’s civil rights and liberties section be included in all discussions about the new programs, officials said. The effort will not use artificial intelligence or track specific individuals.

During its nearly two decades of existence, DHS has been repeatedly accused of violating civil liberties protections by trying to monitor threats.

Hugh Handeyside, a national security attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said he was concerned the expansion of surveillance programs would renew questions about protecting free speech and human rights. private life.

“Responding to security failures by giving law enforcement and intelligence agencies unnecessary powers and resources is like a one-way click,” he said in an email. “The reality is that the federal government already has more than enough authority to investigate and prosecute white supremacist violence.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.


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