How the Government Monitored Twitter During Baltimore's Freddie Gray Protests
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How the Government Monitored Twitter During Baltimore's Freddie Gray Protests

This month's FOIA should serve as a cautionary note to activists using Twitter and other social media to promote their causes.
May 19, 2016, 12:00amUpdated on May 31, 2016, 8:17pm

This article appeared in the May issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

After Freddie Gray died from injuries he sustained while in police custody, citizens of Baltimore took to the streets. The death of the 25-year-old African American man in April 2015 sparked many peaceful demonstrations throughout the city, but when riots broke out, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) monitored Twitter and other social media platforms for "intelligence" about the protests and the protesters.

The DHS discovered a tweet that referenced the riots sent by a "US Person" who apparently "advocated" for the Islamic State and encouraged "users to commit violent acts to include killing police." The DHS feared that the Baltimore protests would become a hotbed of potential terrorist activity, which seems to have provided the agency with the justification to monitor activity that's protected under the First Amendment.

The tweet led the DHS's Intelligence & Analysis (I&A) division to draft an "open source information" report and disseminate it to the intelligence community and federal agencies "with homeland security responsibilities to prevent, deter, or respond to terrorist attacks against the homeland." One of the many sub-offices within the DHS, the I&A has a mission to "equip the Homeland Security Enterprise with the intelligence and information it needs to keep the homeland safe, secure, and resilient."

It has become increasingly clear over the years that federal law enforcement agencies view social justice protests as a breeding ground for domestic terrorism and a good source for intelligence gathering. Indeed, as the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, considered whether to indict police officer Darren Wilson over the August 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager, the DHS was working on a plan to plug federal officers into the protests to perform surveillance and collect intelligence in the crowd.

We wanted to see how the DHS responded to the Freddie Gray protests that followed Ferguson, and if that type of federal government activity extended to Baltimore. One year after we filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the DHS seeking any documents that mentioned or referenced Freddie Gray and the protests that came after his death, the agency sent a heavily redacted copy of the I&A's report (along with a handful of internal DHS emails) that mentioned the Islamic State tweet in the context of the protests. The report should serve as a cautionary note to activists using Twitter and other social media to promote their causes: The DHS says the social media platform is a "constant provider [of intelligence] and is fairly reliable." The agency has, on occasion, monitored certain user accounts.

The first page of the document shows that the DHS obtained the tweet through the Open Source Collection Acquisition Requirement-Management System (OSCAR-MS). This is a "web-based service sponsored by the Office of the Assistant Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Open Source (ADDNI/OS) to provide the National Open Source Enterprise (NOSE) with an application for managing open-source collection requirements," according to an Army techniques publication.

The report was marked "Unclassified" and "For Official Use Only" (FOUO). Though FOUO is not an official security classification, government agencies use it as a protective marking and to exempt information from public disclosure. The report says it may be exempt from disclosure under the FOIA and may "not be released to the public, the media, or other personnel who do not have a valid 'need-to-know' without prior approval of an authorized DHS official."

The report should serve as a cautionary note to activists using Twitter and other social media to promote their causes.

The summary of the tweet in question says, "Twitter user [redacted], in reference to the Baltimore riots, tweets statements encouraging users to commit violent acts to include killing police, advocating for the Islamic State, and encouraging users to go to the Islamic State." It continues: "The account has the profile name [redacted], lists the description [redacted], lists the location [redacted], and lists the [redacted]. As of 29 April 2015, the account has 30 tweets, 426 followers, and is following 346 other users."

Remarkably, the DHS redacted the content of the tweet and the user's handle—even though tweets are by and large public—through four FOIA exemptions: (b)(7), which protects the disclosure of information compiled for law enforcement purposes; (b)(7)(E), which guards information that would reveal "techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions" if disclosed; (b)(7)(C), which protects "personal information" in law enforcement records; and (b)(6), which protects an individual's privacy.

In other words, the DHS determined a public tweet and the person who sent it to be potential evidence in an investigation, and at the same time argued that some of the user's other publicly available information is private and could not be disclosed.

Still, we were able to track down a couple of the tweets that likely raised red flags at the DHS. The now defunct account @muhajiruun tweeted two on April 28, 2015, a day before the DHS sent its report. The tweets, which called for the beheading of police officers and included the hashtag #BaltimoreRiots, made the rounds on far-right-wing blogs and news outlets, which have been hostile to the Black Lives Matter movement and protests about killings by the police.

The rest of the report contains descriptions from the DHS about other tweets that concerned the agency, such as one in which a woman held a sign in a crowded area in Baltimore. The agency redacted the sign on grounds it would violate the woman's privacy and reveal law enforcement techniques and procedures. Another photo caught the DHS's attention because it contained Arabic text. What it actually said, however, remains a mystery because the DHS redacted that too.

You can check out the full batch of government documents on the Freddie Gray protests here.

This article appeared in the May issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.