The Biden administration is considering using private firms to track the online activity of American citizens in order to get around the Fourth Amendment and other laws that protect Americans from unreasonable searches and seizures and surveillance. The report says that the Biden administration wants to monitor “extremist chatter by Americans online” but can’t do so without a warrant, and thinks private firms can get around the legal restrictions.
Federal authorities “can only browse through unprotected information on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook and other open online platforms,” according to CNN.
The plan being discussed inside DHS, according to multiple sources, would, in effect, allow the department to circumvent” restrictions the U.S. government has to surveil American 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.
“By partnering with research firms who have more visibility in this space, the DHS could produce information that would likely be beneficial to both it and the FBI, which can’t monitor US citizens in this way without first getting a warrant or having the pretext of an ongoing investigation,” explains CNN. “The CIA and NSA are also limited on collecting intelligence domestically.”
“There’s a tension between wanting to empower [DHS’s intelligence office] to do this kind of workaround domestic terrorism on the one hand and then, on the other hand, the misuse of its capabilities during the summer of 2020, gives a lot of people on the Hill pause [when it comes to] potentially giving them new authorities, capabilities or resources,” a Senate aide told CNN.
It seems that the January 6 Capitol riot prompted this effort.
Much of the planning for the Capitol Hill riot appeared out in the open, on social media platforms and on encrypted apps available to anyone with an internet connection. The DHS is trying to get a better sense of “narratives” that might lead to violence as they emerge across those channels, according to two DHS officials.
But tracking those narratives, particularly in the wake of January 6, increasingly requires access to private groups on encrypted apps as extremist groups migrate from more forward-facing sites like Facebook.
By the time narratives are appearing on Facebook, it is usually too late, one DHS official told CNN.
“Domestic violent extremists are really adaptive and innovative. We see them not only moving to encrypted platforms, but obviously couching their language so they don’t trigger any kind of red flag on any platforms,” the official added.
Former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows blasted the plan. “They spied on Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and skated by with no consequences,” he tweeted. “And now they want to spy on you too. This is a chilling, terrible idea that should be roundly rejected.”
They spied on Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and skated by with no consequences… and now they want to spy on you too.
This is a chilling, terrible idea that should be roundly rejected. https://t.co/fD1GxLDjUQ
— Mark Meadows (@MarkMeadows) May 3, 2021
Criticism of the plan didn’t just come from the right. Former CIA officer Bryan Dean Wright, a Democrat, called the plan “monstrous.”
Joe Biden wants to “partner” with the private sector to conduct surveillance because the Govt can’t do it without a warrant or ongoing investigation.
This is monstrous. pic.twitter.com/pRV1XamP0d
— BDW (@BryanDeanWright) May 3, 2021
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