DHS monitored ‘social media reactions’ to Roe, collected legally protected speeches, bulletin shows

The Department of Homeland Security has been monitoring “social media reactions” and “thoughts” related to the Supreme Court’s decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, according to a DHS bulletin obtained by Yahoo News. That alarmed current and former DHS officials and civil liberties advocates, who said the agency appears to have collected speech protected by the First Amendment.

The June 26, 2022 document released days after the Roe decision was produced by the department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis and provides updates on what each part of the office is doing in the wake of the SCOTUS decision. “[The Office of Intelligence and Analysis] will continue to monitor this event for any additional information, social media reactions, thoughts and possible threats of violence in response to this event,” he said.

A DHS official said the agency is authorized to collect online postings that would normally be considered protected speech if it determines there is a greater potential threat to national security.

This comes as the department faces scrutiny from Congress for its social media monitoring activities, including how it tracks and collects what it determines to be misinformation or misinformation.

Pro-choice activists demonstrate May 3 outside the United States Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., in response to the leaked Supreme Court draft decision seeking to overturn Roe v. Wade. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas stressed in his testimony before Congress that the work his department does adheres to privacy guidelines and First Amendment protections.

Tracking reactions and thoughts on social media following Roe’s reversal was done in June, during Mayorkas’ tenure.

The bulletin also comes as the US Senate released a report on the DHS and FBI response to domestic terrorism that strongly criticizes DHS’s social media monitoring programs.

The report was released Wednesday by the head of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which is holding a hearing Thursday at which Mayorkas will testify alongside FBI Director Chris Wray.

It calls on DHS and other agencies to “clarify and improve federal agency guidance on the use of social media while respecting the constitutional rights of individuals,” and also references a conversation between DHS officials and the Committee Chairman, Senator Gary Peters, D-Michigan

Alejandro Mayorkas testifies, with a nameplate in front of him saying: Hon.  Mayorkas.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas testifies before a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on “Global Threats to the Homeland” on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. (Reuters/Michael A. McCoy)

According to the Senate report, DHS told the committee chair that it had “expanded its assessment of online activity as part of efforts to assess and prevent acts of violence, so as to ensure protection solid foundation of Americans’ privacy, civil rights and civil liberties”. .”

But monitoring social media thoughts and reactions appear to contradict DHS claims.

The report also calls on agencies to develop guidelines that “must comply with federal law protections and constitutional limitations, including the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments, and agencies must be transparent about the data they use regarding social media”.

Civil liberties advocates said they were alarmed to learn that the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis was monitoring free speech.

“It is alarming that I&A intends to monitor ‘social media reactions’ to the release of the Supreme Court’s opinion quashing Roe v. Wade,” said Rachel Levinson-Waldman, deputy director of the Freedom and National Security program at the Brennan Center. for Justice, which reviewed the bulletin for Yahoo News.

“The document does not disclose which social networks I&A intends to monitor, what reactions it seeks, or what types of social media posts would warrant inclusion in a follow-up situation report,” she said. “Even if some threats float in the sea of ​​social media, searching for ‘reactions’ to the decision will inevitably produce a volume of sensitive information that will overwhelm the small amount of relevant data, while jeopardizing Americans’ rights to privacy. freedom of expression and freedom of association and the risk of delegitimizing political discourse.

The logo of the Department of Homeland Security, with a crest atop an eagle with outstretched wings holding an olive branch and eight arrows.

The Department of Homeland Security logo at the ICE Cyber ​​Crimes Center expanded facility in Fairfax, Va. (Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images)

Levinson-Waldman added that “with DHS’s nationwide audience of tens of thousands of law enforcement officers, it’s unclear who will receive this report from the U.S. intelligence community and how local agencies are supposed to use reactions to current events to monitor their citizens.

“If this exercise of authority is warranted by I&A’s oversight guidelines, it’s just further evidence that the guidelines allow for far too intrusive data collection and that DHS has strayed from its intended mission.”

The former head of DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis told Yahoo News that it’s critical that those doing this work know the difference between protected speech and a potential threat.

“Efforts to prevent acts of targeted violence benefit significantly when law enforcement or security officials assess the content of online forums of violent extremists or other threat actors,” John said. Cohen, former acting DHS undersecretary for intelligence and analysis. “The challenge is that analysts must distinguish between protected speech and threat-related activity.”

The DHS Inspector General’s Office released several reports this year detailing issues with how the department collects open-source information, including social media posts.

Abortion rights supporters protest, carrying placards saying, for example, abortion is health, and

Abortion rights supporters demonstrate June 25 outside the United States Supreme Court the day after the ruling in the abortion case Dobbs v. Women’s Health Organization which overturned Roe v. Wade. (Reuters/Elizabeth Frantz)

On July 6, the Inspector General released a report titled “The Office of Intelligence and Analysis Needs to Improve Its Open Source Intelligence Reporting.”

“Even after their initial training, the collectors we spoke with weren’t sure if, in their day-to-day operations, they adhered to privacy protections and freedom of expression,” he says.

The report called on the department to improve training for analysts who collect this type of information, including social media posts. Mayorkas accepted this recommendation, the report noted.

In response to questions about DHS’s monitoring of social media reactions and thoughts, a DHS spokesperson emailed a statement to Yahoo News:

“The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) is authorized by statute and executive order to assess publicly available information in support of its authorized missions and in accordance with oversight guidelines of the Department of Homeland Security. attorney general-approved information that safeguards privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties,” the statement said, noting that “I&A routinely shares information with federal, state, and local law enforcement partners. laws to prevent, protect or better respond to targeted violence and terrorism”.

Asked about the Senate report released Wednesday, a DHS spokesperson told Yahoo News in an email that “countering domestic violent extremism is a top priority for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). DHS is committed to a community-based approach to preventing terrorism and targeted violence, and does so in a way that protects privacy, civil rights and civil liberties, and complies with all applicable laws.”

Yahoo News reporter Caitlin Dickson contributed to this report.

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