Trump Administration Has Talked Up Social Media Vetting, But It’s Nothing New

Sergey Nivens/

Arlington-based deep web search engine provider Giant Oak says agencies have been perusing social media accounts long before Trump took office.

Some federal agencies are spending more money mining people’s social media accounts than they were a few years ago, but the increase doesn’t seem related to President Donald Trump promoting the practice.

Since Trump took office, his administration has rankled privacy advocates by proposing to thoroughly vet immigrants and visitors’ social media accounts to root out potential terrorists.

Former Homeland Security Department Secretary John Kelly suggested forcing travelers to hand over their social media handles before entering the country; lawmakers have called for legislation requiring DHS to dig through the social media accounts of anyone applying for a visa.

In fact, DHS has been increasing its social media spending over the past few years, according to government contract research firm InterKn, which estimated that DHS awards and grants mentioning social media analysis reached about $750,000 in fiscal 2017, compared to about $100,000 in 2014.

Government market research firm Govini estimated that DHS’s spending on social media mining software reached $24.6 million in fiscal 2017, about three times as much as it spent in fiscal 2013. Companies winning those DHS contracts include Data Mining International, PenLink, and Akira Technologies.

Since the federal government has long been investigating individuals’ social media accounts, and despite the increased hype surrounding the practice, it’s business as usual for one tech contractor selling instances of a deep web search engine to federal agencies.

Arlington-based Giant Oak sells Giant Oak Search Technology, or GOST. The technology sweeps open-source repositories, including public social media posts, for information about individuals who are likely to traffic drugs, launder money, violate visas, and commit other crimes. Giant Oak entered the federal market four years ago, and has public contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement—part of DHS—as well as with the State and Treasury departments.

Social media platforms have always been part of GOST’s search, but federal customers aren’t asking the company to devote more attention to social media postings under the Trump administration, chief executive officer Gary Shiffman told Nextgov. In his view, “the demand and interest in social media hasn’t changed—it’s this understanding that you can exploit the internet, the open source [intelligence]...much more quickly and cheaply than we previously knew.”

Shiffman emphasized that Giant Oak does not take on fake personas or evade users’ privacy protections in its search, but can use various information sources to triangulate the identity of a person of interest. “If a known bank robber has a Facebook [profile], almost never do they post on their Facebook [profile] that they robbed a bank, but they might have...a picture of them standing in front of a new car,” he explained. “Through other data sources we might discover that this person also robbed a bank.”

Thomson Reuters and LexisNexis offer similar services with their deep web search engines, though Giant Oak’s is unique because it learns over time what search results a user finds relevant, and adapts future search results accordingly, Shiffman said.  

Shiffman expects to gain more traction in the federal market as analysts begin to understand that searching public networks, instead of relying on classified government information, can expand their knowledge base.

“The intelligence community has to accept the fact that there’s so much more information available now than maybe five, 10 years ago,” he said. And while those analysts’ classified information sources “will never go away, that becomes a smaller piece of the pie every year because the pie is growing.”