The Biden administration intends to ramp up its tracking of "domestic terrorism" and is considering contracting with outside firms in order to do so. These firms would monitor "extremist chatter" among Americans online and they would not need to get a warrant before beginning their surveillance.
The plan to use outside firms to do the surveillance would be an effort to skirt existing regulations that the Department of Homeland Security must follow, reports CNN. Existing rules prohibit DHS from "assuming false identities to gain access to private messaging apps," for example. Instead, "federal authorities can only browse through unprotected information on social media..."
This would be something of a legal workaround, and "Privacy advocates on the Hill have already questioned the Defense Intelligence Agency's efforts to get around restrictions on collecting Americans' location data without a warrant by purchasing that data from commercially-available databases."
Some of the firms under consideration are in the practice of using fake identities to gather information from private citizens, including accessing private Facebook groups and message boards under false pretenses. DHS maintained that even so, they wouldn't use the information gained about those individuals to target those individuals. Instead, DHS said, the "materials provided would only consist of broad summaries of analysis of narratives that are emerging on these sites..."
A source told CNN that the effort would be about "using outside entities who can legally access these private groups to gather large amounts of information that could help DHS identify key narratives as they emerge."
Much of this has to do with the interests of DHS to track events like the Capitol riot of Jan. 6 before it happens. However, some have raised concerns that these kinds of tactics could be used against other domestic terror groups, such as Antifa, or even radical protest groups like BLM. This, critics claim, is what was done over the summer with regard to protestors and rioters in Portland, Ore., during the over 100 days straight of rioting in that city.
However, Biden Attorney General Merrick Garland differentiated between Antifa's actions over the summer of 2020 and the one-day Capitol riot of Jan. 6, saying that violence against federal property in Portland was not domestic terrorism, while violence against federal property in Washington, DC, was.
The FBI also stands to benefit from this initiative, as they, too, need a warrant before they can simply monitor Americans. Americans are protected from domestic intelligence collection by the constitutional safeguards against unlawful search and seizure. In enacting these news plans, the Biden administration would be banking on the idea that only government law enforcement agencies are beholden to those limitations.
Tom Warwick, former DHS Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counterterrorism Policy until 2019, said that "There was only limited awareness before January 6 of what violent extremists were planning through social media."
His expectation would be that DHS would "explore whether contractors could help them understand plots and trends" that bubble up online. However, he said that "Whatever gets approved and implemented has to comply with established laws."
While the Biden administration has been quick to label domestic terrorist groups on the far-right, they have declined to take the same approach to Antifa. This ramp up in domestic intelligence gathering, through the use of external firms, is aimed primarily at far-right groups. President Biden has in fact said that Antifa is just an idea, not an organization.