Motherboard Speaks to William C. Banks About Social Media Surveillance

Pentagon Wants to Predict Anti-Trump Protests Using Social Media Surveillance

(Motherboard | Oct. 30, 2018) The United States government is accelerating efforts to monitor social media to preempt major anti-government protests in the US, according to scientific research, official government documents, and patent filings reviewed by Motherboard.

“One reason that doctrines are updated is due to changes in technology—military intelligence capabilities will adapt to new technologies, the power of social media, new cybersecurity capabilities.”

The social media posts of American citizens who don’t like President Donald Trump are the focus of the latest US military-funded research. The research, funded by the US Army and co-authored by a researcher based at the West Point Military Academy, is part of a wider effort by the Trump administration to consolidate the US military’s role and influence on domestic intelligence.

The vast scale of this effort is reflected in a number of government social media surveillance patents granted this year, which relate to a spy program that the Trump administration outsourced to a private company last year. Experts interviewed by Motherboard say that the Pentagon’s new technology research may have played a role in amendments this April to the Joint Chiefs of Staff homeland defense doctrine, which widen the Pentagon’s role in providing intelligence for domestic “emergencies,” including an “insurrection” …

… How far that caution applies in the context of a DOD led by a Trump appointee is an open question. But Aftergood also described the amendments as a potential danger to American democracy: “The whole subject bears careful monitoring, since it potentially poses a challenge to civilian control of government and to the integrity of democratic institutions,” he said.

I also spoke to William C. Banks, distinguished professor and founding director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse University’s College of Law, who largely agreed with Aftergood’s assessment. “There is cause for concern due to the ambiguities embedded in the law and the federal guidance supplied through civilian and military agencies on homeland defense,“ Banks warned. “It is not unusual for doctrines like this to be quietly updated and they do this almost every year. But these changes are always worth monitoring due to the risk to democracy.”

I asked Banks, co-author of Soldiers on the Homefront: The Domestic Role of the American Military, about the doctrine’s description of an “insurrection” as a “homeland defense“ issue.

“The US military role in the homeland is not new, but in this case there’s a tension between DSCA [Defense Support for Civil Authorities] and homeland defense, because in one setting civilians are in charge, and in another setting the military are in charge,” he said. “The changes to doctrine are not dramatic, but they could make it more likely, maybe inevitable, that those jurisdictional issues might come together or clash in some way.”

The outcome of such a clash could end up putting Trump’s Defense Secretary in charge of a response to a domestic emergency categorized by Trump as an “insurrection.“ Taken in tandem with the US military’s sudden interest in predicting anti-Trump protests after the 2016 elections, the Pentagon’s upgraded homeland defense doctrine seems to be part of a wider effort by the Trump administration to prepare for domestic civil unrest in coming months and years.

Indeed, according to Banks, the changes to the doctrine in April could well have occurred as an effort to adapt to the technological developments in social media surveillance under the Trump administration described earlier in this story.

“One reason that doctrines are updated is due to changes in technology—military intelligence capabilities will adapt to new technologies, the power of social media, new cybersecurity capabilities,” he said. “The more we learn about those, the more we can envisage new threats and new opportunities to address them. So this new research on social media surveillance is exactly the kind of thing that could prompt changes in doctrine. The Pentagon’s support for this kind of research is concerning and should be closely monitored” …

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