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Tuesday, November 30, 2021
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DHS Pilot Social Media Screening Programs Need Better Performance Measurements, IG Says

Pilot Department of Homeland Security (DHS) programs for using social media to screen applicants for immigration benefits, screening of immigration applicants and for screening during the visa issuance process on which DHS plans to base future department-wide use of social media screening, “lack criteria for measuring performance to ensure they meet their objectives,” according to a redacted DHS Inspector General (IG) audit report.

The IG said, “Although the pilots include some objectives, such as determining the effectiveness of an automated search tool and assessing data collection and dissemination procedures, it is not clear DHS is measuring and evaluating the pilots’ results to determine how well they are performing. Absent measurement criteria, the pilots will be of limited use in planning and implementing an effective, department-wide future social media screening program.”

The IG also noted that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) “has issued best practices for an effective pilot phase of a program,” and that according to GAO, “The pilot phase allows for a check on whether program operations occur as expected.” GAO has also stated that pilot programs should have well-defined, clear, and measurable objectives; criteria or standards for determining pilot performance; and a plan to track the pilot’s performance and evaluate the final results. Following thesebest practices can increase the rigor of the pilots to ensure scalability and long term success.

DHS established a task force to study use of social media as US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) initiated pilots to expand social media, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) began an its own independent pilot to use social media.

The IG made one recommendation to help ensure DHS develops an effective social media screening program. The Intelligence & Analysis (I&A) office, on behalf of itself, USCIS and ICE, concurred with the recommendation and has begun taking corrective actions.

“I&A concurred with the recommendation and stated that DHS has taken steps to improve its social media screening pilots by implementing a four-pronged approach that measures performance to develop consistent benchmarks and continue improving performance to ensure rigor and scalability for long-term success. This approach includes using qualitative and quantitative criteria for measuring tool performance; collecting and analyzing comprehensive performance metrics of ongoing research and development pilots; reporting project milestones to the task force; and reporting select metrics measuring pilot performance in a weekly task force agenda. Additionally, DHS will continue to identify and refine new and existing metrics to measure social media screening pilots’ performance, to include identifying benchmarks for the various tools tested.”

The IG explained that, “Following the December 2, 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, lawmakers became increasingly concerned about the use of social media by terrorist groups. On December 15, 2015, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and 24 other Senators sent a letter to the Secretary of Homeland Security requesting that, as soon as possible, DHS expand social media background checks, focused on possible connections to terrorist activity, to screening for visa determinations for visitors and immigrants. In response, the then DHS Secretary and Deputy Secretary asked the Under Secretary for I&A to lead a task force to review the department’s current use of social media and identify options to optimize its use across DHS.”

DHS’s task force is comprised of senior representatives and staff from DHS, USCIS, ICE, Customs and Border Protection, Transportation Security Administration and DHS oversight offices including the Office of General Counsel, Privacy Office and Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which all have a vested interest in DHS’ use of social media.

“According to the task force’s implementation plan, the first priority was to conduct a pilot at USCIS to test systematic screening of applicants for immigration benefits,” the IG said, noting, “USCIS had used social media in a limited capacity but had no experience using it as a large-scale screening tool. In December 2015, USCIS started screening the social media accounts of a limited number of [REDACTED] applying for [REDACTED] status, using both manual and automated screening. The task force intended to use the December 2015 pilot and lessons learned from other DHS components’ use of social media to develop policies and processes for standardized use of social media department-wide.”

“Additionally,” The IG said, “to expand social media screening across all DHS components, the task force recommended, and the Secretary approved, creation of a DHS Social Media Center of Excellence. In April 2016, USCIS expanded social media screening, testing another automated tool together with manual screening. In August 2016, ICE began using a different automated tool to screen the social media of nonimmigrant visa holders [REDACTED]."

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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