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.The Department of Homeland Security is limited in how it can monitor citizens online without justification and is banned from activities like assuming false identities to gain access to private messaging apps used by extremist groups such as the Proud Boys or Oath Keepers.Instead, federal authorities can only browse through unprotected information on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook and other open online platforms.
The plan being discussed inside DHS, according to multiple sources, would, in effect, allow the department to circumvent those limits. 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. The CIA and NSA are also limited on collecting intelligence domestically.
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.