The presence of heavily armed federal law enforcement agents in Portland, Oregon is already leaving locals unsettled and terrified, as tensions and police violence have escalated in response to Black Lives Matter protests over the past 50 days. Added to the brute force on the ground is a new development, first spotted by the Lawfare blog and corroborated by The Washington Post. According to the report, the Department of Homeland Security has authorized its personnel to effectively spy on individual social media accounts for any content surrounding "threats" to public statues and monuments.
Over the past few weeks, protesters have demonstrated against the presence and glorification of monuments and statues belonging to expansionists and slave owners.
The three-page unclassified document gives Homeland Security officials complete permission to surveil protesters with "collecting and reporting on various activities in the context of elevated threats targeting monuments, memorials, and statues." While the authorization itself is abundantly clear, the department does not explain to what degree this surveillance will take place — and exactly how one even defines tricky situations involving complicity, association, threat, and more.
What constitutes 'reasonably suspicious'? — The gist of the document provides a clear definition as far as the agency's power goes. The unclassified papers show that if it chooses to, the agency can and will collect and analyze public sources for information processing. If you're a protester involved in local demonstrations, your online activity will most likely be monitored.
Carte blanche — There are severe issues with this approach. For one, the agency does not explain what "reasonably suspicious" would mean in this context. It says that the surveilling will be done with the "sole purpose of monitoring activities protected by the First Amendment" but it won't explain, for example, whether association with protesters is also a "reasonably suspicious" activity.
It also does not explain how long the agency will have access to this information. At one point, it does state that the data acquired through this digital combing will be kept on record for 180 days. But it notes that the information will be shared in other departments and groups without elaborating on how long those entities have access to this activity.
This is the logical outcome when the acting secretary of the agency is the notorious Chad Wolf. You can assess just how thoughtful Wolf is when you consider the following statement he gave upon criticism of his aggressive approach in Oregon:
I don't need invitations by the state, state mayors or state governors to do our job. We're going to do that, whether they like us there or not.
When you're not ashamed of your agents violently beating an unarmed protester or watching them disappear locals into vans, you probably have no problem with spying on civilians.