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Homeland Security may use companies to find extremism on social media

There are concerns this will degrade civil liberties.
Jon Fingas
Jon Fingas|@jonfingas|August 15, 2021 11:29 AM

The Department of Homeland Security might not rely solely on in-house systems to spot extremist threats on social media. Intelligence officer and initiative leader John Cohen told The Wall Street Journal in an interview that Homeland Security is looking at hiring companies to analyze social networks for signs of impending terrorism and other extremist violence. The department had been studying social media before, but the outside partners would help "dramatically" expand these efforts, Cohen said.

Murmurs of extensive social media scanning first surfaced in May, but there were few details about how it would work. The rumors suggested Homeland Security would focus on alarming trends rather than individual targets, such as brewing extremist movements or threats against specific communities. The aim is to catch the violent rhetoric behind events like the January 6th Capitol riot, which Homeland Security didn't anticipate despite mounting social media activity.

One of the companies involved in discussions is Logically, a firm that uses a mix of AI and human analysis to track online content at a large scale. It was previously involved in a government effort to fight voting misinformation, but here could use publicly accessible social media to spot trouble.

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Whether or not Homeland Security can address privacy fears is another matter. Cohen said the department wouldn't use companies to acquire information it was restricted from seeing, and Journal sources said officials were determined to protect civil liberties. Logically chief Lyric Jain said his company couldn't share personal data for Americans without court orders.

Even so, there are concerns Homeland Security could abuse this private analysis. It could theoretically hold on to content and use the data to pursue unrelated criminal cases or target peaceful political dissent. That could chill free speech by making people afraid to talk about certain subjects in public channels, even if there are no discussions of violent intentions.

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