New Report: Social Media Monitoring: How the Department of Homeland Security Uses Digital Data in the Name of National Security

On May 22, the Brennan Center for Justice released a new and scathing report, Social Media Monitoring: How the Department of Homeland Security Uses Digital Data in the Name of National Security, that analyzes DHS’s expansion and use of social media information and data collection culled from press reports, information obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, Privacy Impact Assessments, System of Records Notices, departmental handbooks, government contracts, and other publicly available documents.  As background and introduction, the authors note:

 

“The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is rapidly expanding its collection of social media information and using it to evaluate the security risks posed by foreign and American travelers. This year marks a major expansion. The visa applications vetted by DHS will include social media handles that the State Department is set to collect from some 15 million travelers per year. Social media can provide a vast trove of information about individuals, including their personal preferences, political and religious views, physical and mental health, and the identity of their friends and family. But it is susceptible to misinterpretation, and wholesale monitoring of social media creates serious risks to privacy and free speech. Moreover, despite the rush to implement these programs, there is scant evidence that they actually meet the goals for which they are deployed.

 

“While officials regularly testify before Congress to highlight some of the ways in which DHS is using social media, they rarely give a full picture or discuss either the effectiveness of such programs or their risks. The extent to which DHS exploits social media information is buried in jargon-filled notices about changes to document storage systems that impart only the vaguest outlines of the underlying activities.

 

The following are the report’s eight key – and scary – findings:

 

1.      Social media information is collected from travelers, including Americans, even when they are not suspected of any connection to illegal activity.

 

2.      Social media checks extend to travelers’ family, friends, business associates, and social media contacts.

 

3.      DHS frequently uses social media information for vague and open-ended evaluations that can be used to target unpopular views or populations.

 

4.      DHS is continuously monitoring some people inside the United States and plans to expand these efforts.

 

5.      DHS is increasingly seeking and using automated tools to analyze social media.

 

6.      Social media information collected for one purpose is used by DHS in a range of other contexts, increasing the likelihood of misinterpretation.

 

7.      Social media information collected by DHS is shared with other law enforcement and security agencies under broad standards.

 

8.      DHS systems retain information for long periods, sometimes in violation of the department’s own rules.

 

The report concludes:

 

“Social media provides a huge trove of information about individuals … that has proved irresistible for security and law enforcement agencies to collect and mine in the name of national security and public safety. Increasingly, DHS is vacuuming up social media information from a variety of sources … 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. But there are serious questions about these programs: the evidence shows they are not effective in identifying risk, and they open the door to discrimination and the suppression of speech, association, and religious belief. Congress must fulfill its oversight responsibilities and require DHS both to come clean about the full extent of its social media surveillance and ensure that these programs are based on empirical evidence of effectiveness, safeguard against discrimination, and include robust privacy protections.

 

* * *

 

“The consequences of allowing these types of programs to continue unchecked are too grave to ignore.”  (emphasis added)

It’s no surprise that the Department of State now requests ALL social media handles (user names) for the last five years — including Facebook, Twitter, Flicker, and Myspace — on nonimmigrant- and immigrant-visa applications, DS-160 and DS-260.

 

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law is a nonpartisan law and policy institute that works to reform, revitalize, and — when necessary — defend our country’s systems of democracy and justice. The full report is available at https://www.brennancenter.org/publication/social-media-monitoring.