social media scanning (ShutterStock image)

Social media screening pilots lack metrics, DHS IG says

After the San Bernardino shooting in December 2015, the Department of Homeland Security wanted to know if social media could provide insight into a person’s possible connections to terrorist activities. To test whether automated or manual screening could provide such information, it launched two pilot programs that looked into the social media accounts of some prospective immigrants and visitors.

According to a just-released report from the DHS inspector general, the pilots lacked specific criteria to measure their effectiveness.

The pilot conducted by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement pilot used social media screening in the visa issuance process and beyond. While the inspector general report was redacted, it revealed that the agency is using a "web search tool that specializes in social media data exploitation by analyzing social media data and funneling it into actionable information," to "help identify potential derogatory information not found in government databases."

The report redacts the duration of the screening of the ICE pilot, but it is clear the test program involved more than a one-time check of public-facing social media posts.

The Citizenship and Immigration Service's social media screening pilot, meanwhile, launched in April 2016. Under that pilot, USCIS screeners requested social media information from visa applicants, then checked the information against a tool developed by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency. USCIS concluded that the tool afforded a low "match confidence," and that manual screening delivered better results. The IG report redacts data on the number of accounts USCIS was able to confirm using the DARPA tool, and the number it was not able to confirm.

The OIG report advised DHS to better determine how it measures and evaluates social media screening before expanding the pilots. Without improvements, the investigators noted, "the pilots may provide limited information for planning and implementing an effective, department-wide future social media screening program."

DHS pushed back on the idea that these initial projects were true pilots, or that they lacked metrics. In reply comments dated Dec. 29, Francis X. Taylor, undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at DHS, wrote that "the overall characterization" that the screening projects lacked performance metrics was "misleading."

Taylor said the projects were not fully operational pilots and in part functioned as a way to conduct screening of social media analytics technologies that might support the DHS components' needs.

Another social media screening pilot, this one at Customs and Border Protection, launched in January, according to Taylor's reply comments.

This article was first posted to FCW, a sister site to GCN.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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