Biden’s Defense Department is quietly trying to roll out a surveillance initiative that appears to involve spying on service members’ social media accounts. The proposed program is ostensibly designed to root out extremists in the military’s ranks. But how far might the government go when it comes to jeopardizing military personnel’s First Amendment rights?
Pentagon’s New Plan to Root Out Extremism
A recent report revealed that the Pentagon plans to start a pilot program that would screen social media for “extremist” material, particularly as it relates to members of the military. According to documentation reviewed by The Intercept and a source alleged to have “direct knowledge” of the proposed initiative, military leadership is in the process of designing the program, which would involve hiring a private company to perform the surveillance possibly as a way to bypass First Amendment protections.
From The Intercept:
“An extremism steering committee led by Bishop Garrison, a senior adviser to the secretary of defense, is currently designing the social media screening pilot program, which will ‘continuously’ monitor military personnel for ‘concerning behaviors,’ according to a Pentagon briefing in late March. Although in the past the military has balked at surveilling service members for extremist political views due to First Amendment protections, the pilot program will rely on a private surveillance firm in order to circumvent First Amendment restrictions on government monitoring, according to a senior Pentagon official.”
The Defense Department has not yet chosen a firm to collect the data, but the frontrunner is a company named Babel Street, which sells surveillance tools and social media monitoring software. The firm has had its share of criticism. The Intercept noted.
“Babel Street has drawn criticism for its practice of buying bulk cellular location data and selling it to federal national security agencies like the Secret Service, who rely on the private company to bypass warrant requirements normally imposed on government bodies seeking to collect data. In November, Vice reported that the U.S. military’s Special Operations Command used one of Babel Street’s products, Locate X, to track the location of individuals for special forces operations.”
After the report was published, the House Armed Services Committee provided a statement, which said, “We anticipate that any social media screening would be intended only as an additional means of vetting cleared individuals or those seeking to obtain a security clearance, not as a tool for ongoing surveillance of all men and women in uniform.”
How Will the Surveillance Program Work?
The Defense Department gave a preview about this initiative in an April press release discussing its Countering Extremism Working Group, which was tasked with giving suggestions regarding “incorporating machine learning and natural language processing into social media screen platforms” and ensuring “training addresses issues raised by commanders and supervisors on ‘gray areas’ such as reading, following, and liking extremist material and content in social media forums and platforms.”
According to the report, the pilot program will use keywords to identify potential extremists. That’s difficult to do without running afoul of speech protections, but it’s to that end that the military plans to “consult with experts from across the political spectrum to help develop the pilot program.”
Former FBI agent Mike German, who worked undercover inside neo-Nazi groups, told The Intercept: “Using key words to monitor social media isn’t just an unnecessary privacy invasion, it is a flawed strategy that will ensure it is short-lived.”
He continued: “It will undoubtedly produce a flood of false positives that will waste security resources and undermine morale, without identifying the real problem, which is the tolerance for those that openly engage in racist behavior and discrimination.”
In 2019, the White House rejected a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) proposal to collect social media data on immigration applicants. After the Trump administration made its decision, Harsha Panduranga, counsel for the Brennan Center’s Liberty & National Security Program, pointed out that this method is ineffectual and could violate the right to free speech.
“As OIRA’s [White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs] decision signals, there is little evidence that social media screening is an effective screening tool,” Panduranga insisted. “But we do know that facilitating dragnet surveillance of the modern public square harms free speech and privacy, imposing a disparate impact on people who have traditionally borne the brunt of government profiling in the name of national security.”
German suggested taking different measures to root out extremists in the Armed Forces that would not run into First Amendment issues.
“Trying to suss out ‘extremists’ with an algorithm isn’t likely to identify problem employees within the department nearly as effectively as simply making clear that racist misbehavior and discrimination won’t be tolerated, requiring the troops and officers to report this misconduct when they see it, and then protecting them from reprisal when they do,” he explained. “But, today, because the Defense Department doesn’t adequately protect whistleblowers, reporting such misconduct is often more risky to a person’s military career than actually engaging in racist misbehavior.”
The potential ramifications of such a program are chilling – especially when one considers how far such an idea could be taken. For starters, how exactly does one define “extremism” when it comes to social media posts? At first, it might be designed to target ideologies and groups that are legitimately dangerous. But how long before this initiative is abused in a way that targets people based purely on political affiliation?
Even worse, if this plan is allowed in the military, is it a stretch to imagine that the powers-that-be would begin using this software on the civilian population in the name of saving lives? The fact that the Pentagon is vetting companies to perform surveillance demonstrates that they might be fully aware that they are trampling over human rights. The question is: Will Congress act?
Read more from Jeff Charles.
*May 24, 2021 update/correction: The original version of this article quoted a source as saying that Babel Street’s product, Locate X, used data associated with a popular Muslim prayer app. The company has since clarified that it does not – nor has it ever – had any business relationship with any Muslim prayer app.