A liberal-leaning think tank is suing the Biden administration to reveal the government’s social media surveillance tools and the extent of online spying on Americans.
The New York-based Brennan Center sued the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement for refusing to hand over records about its use of data analytics products that scour the internet.
“The agency’s expanded use of social media monitoring tools will heighten existing risks to privacy and to freedom of speech, expression, and association, affecting Americans, immigrants, and foreign travelers while making scant contributions to national security,” the Brennan Center’s Rachel Levinson-Waldman and José Guillermo Gutiérrez said in a statement posted on the center’s website.
The lawsuit filed last week in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York seeks records about the government’s use of tools from three companies: ShadowDragon, Logically Inc. and Voyager Labs. The trio makes data tools relying on artificial intelligence that allows customers to spend more time analyzing information rather than gathering it.
The Brennan Center’s lawsuit said it knows ICE uses ShadowDragon, DHS has had preliminary conversations with Logically Inc., and Voyager Labs markets its services for areas under DHS’ purview such as border security.
In December 2021, the Brennan Center sought a range of documents on the government’s use of these tools including records about internal audits, legal justifications, training and use, purchase orders, communications about the companies, and nondisclosure agreements.
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Rather than reject the Freedom of Information Act request for records, the Brennan Center’s lawsuit alleges the government ignored it. A DHS official transferred the request internally in December 2021, ignored further requests through April 2022, and declared the matter closed earlier this month.
Immigration enforcement agencies are hardly the only ones using social media tools and facing scrutiny for doing so. The U.S. Postal Service Inspector General published an audit in March saying that postal inspectors conducted unauthorized searches and exceeded their legal authority through its Internet Covert Operations Program (iCOP).
Postal inspectors working on the iCOP program allegedly snooped on Americans’ social media accounts to monitor “right-wing Parler and Telegram accounts” ahead of protests, according to a bulletin published by Yahoo! News last year.
The Postal Service watchdog’s investigation was conducted in response to a request from House Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney, New York Democrat, and ranking member Rep. James Comer, Kentucky Republican.
National security agencies and officials have an interest in social media monitoring too. The Department of Defense last year said it planned to spend nearly $60 million on its Influence Campaign Awareness and Sensemaking program to make algorithms and gathering tweets, memes, blog posts, and political ads. The goal is to provide tools to create an “early warning” of foreign influence, according to the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
The full picture of how the federal government monitors social media is unclear but many agencies find it valuable. At a Cyber Initiatives Group event last week, intelligence community cyber executive Laura Galante said information published on Twitter and blogs can be “just as critical as different types of classified or other sources” when studying cyber threats.
DHS and ICE did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the Brennan Center’s lawsuit.