CBP announces social media tracking program

Under a new initiative, certain Customs and Border Protection personnel are trolling public-facing social media for threats against agency facilities and officials.

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Under a new initiative, Customs and Border Protection personnel are trolling public-facing social media for threat information, according to a privacy notice released March 27.

The CBP program is operated by employees who monitor threats to agency operations, personnel and facilities. Employees charged with providing an operational picture to higher-ups "may use publicly available information including information obtained to social media sites" in their reports, a privacy impact assessment stated.

According to the CBP notice, the social media monitoring is designed to provide situational awareness for ongoing events, such as an active shooter near a CPB facility, a wildfire near an airport or a natural disaster near a border crossing.

The policy announcement comes a few weeks after news reports about CPB officials improperly maintaining databases and dossiers on activists, attorneys and journalists involved in immigration advocacy. Individuals whose information was contained in those databases were singled out for interrogation at border crossings, according to news reports.

While CBP and Homeland Security officials didn't comment on the veracity of the reporting, they did allude to ongoing monitoring of threats to agency personnel and facilities.

"Criminal events, such as the breach of the border wall in San Diego, involving assaults on law enforcement and a risk to public safety, are routinely monitored and investigated by authorities. These activities could result in a more thorough review of those seeking entrance into our country," a CBP spokesperson told Buzzfeed earlier this month.

Information deemed to contain a threat can be logged in a CBP database for possible criminal investigation, and individuals behind such threats can be tagged in other DHS systems for intelligence assessments and other law enforcement monitoring. Threat information, if deemed credible by a manual review, can be stored in DHS systems for up to 25 years.

CBP personnel don't monitor social media sites directly, but use a tool that creates audit logs of social network and website visits. "The ability to monitor the sites visited by CBP employees helps to ensure that social media tools are not being used for purposes other than those prescribed," the notice stated. The tool also has geo-fencing capabilities which can target social media monitoring to specific geographic areas -- as long as those individuals being tracked have public-facing accounts that disclose their current location.

According to the privacy notice, existing CPB policy supplemented by training mitigates the threat of social media monitoring being used to single out and track individuals for activity protected under the First Amendment. The notice states that "CBP specifically selects keywords so as to minimize collecting information related to First Amendment activities."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency deployed a similar capability in 2016. Under that program, FEMA included public-facing social media under the umbrella of other media sources it monitors during ongoing disaster situations.