America’s Department of Homeland Security Is Spying on Social Media to Track Threats to Statues

Photo: Tasos Katopodis, Getty Images
Photo: Tasos Katopodis, Getty Images

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence & Analysis has been authorised to conduct social media surveillance of protestors in order to protect statues and monuments, according to an unclassified three-page document obtained by Lawfare and the Washington Post. The undated document appears to offer legal guidance to analysts at I&A about how best to implement the “expanded intelligence activities” necessary to fulfil the president’s executive order targeting protesters who threatened to remove racist statues, regardless of whether they are on federal property.

The move to treat relatively minor property crimes as explicit homeland security threats that warrant social media surveillance is alarming, but not altogether surprising given the unprecedented and unnecessary force deployed against demonstrators in Portland, Oregon. Over the last week, reports out of Portland have described masked federal officers disappearing protesters and brutalizing Portland’s residents simply attempting to exercise their First Amendment right to demonstrate against systematic racism and police violence against Black communities. “What is happening in Portland right now,” Robert Evans of Bellingcat told the New York Times in an interview late last week, “…it’s as close up to the line as you can get to actual war without live rounds. It’s really hard for me to see how things go much further without people dying.”

According to Lawfare, which first reported the I&A guidance, these so-called “intelligence activities” appear to include the monitoring of social media posts as well as the use of other public information to keep track of individuals and groups that the department claims may “damage or destroy any public monument, memorial, or statue.”

While the DHS memo states that intelligence collection can only occur with “reasonable suspicion” and not for the “sole purpose of monitoring activities protected by the First Amendment,” it is unclear what types of actions an analyst might define as reasonably suspicious. For instance, if someone post a video to Facebook of a stranger spray painting “fuck 12” on a federal building, are they now guilty by association — implicating their entire network in this single act of vandalism?

Though the document states that information collected about U.S. citizens by the DHS may only be retained up to 180 days, data can apparently be shared with other law enforcement agencies, both public and private.

The lack of oversight and transparency over the DHS is concerning to many experts. In May, the Centre for New American Studies put out a report arguing that DHS requires immediate congressional attention, claiming that the “institution has not matured sufficiently to ensure adequate oversight and accountability.”

DHS is very clearly a rogue arm of federal law enforcement. Chad Wolf, the acting Secretary of Homeland Security, a man who went to college on a tennis scholarship, boasted to Fox News that he didn’t need anyone’s permission to invade an American city. He is now in charge of the country’s largest law enforcement agency without ever being confirmed by the Senate and plans to serve agents to cities near you.