Prior to the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, several Federal agencies were found to have used “open source” data for obtaining information about the impending incident, with details emerging as early as November 2020.

In a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the agency noted that the agencies using open source data – social media posts or other publicly available information – developed reports for situational awareness based on that data.

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The reports include information on how groups may attack the Capitol or Congress, extremist groups may commit or incite violence, groups may be armed, or violence was possible between opposing groups.

“All 10 selected agencies— including the [FBI] and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Intelligence and Analysis who have lead roles in countering domestic terrorism and violent extremism—were aware of open source data about planned events on January 6, and seven were aware of potential violence planned for that day,” wrote GAO. “They obtained the data through manual web searches, sharing with each other, and social media platforms.”

Based on open source data to inform security planning, seven of the 10 agencies developed 38 election-related threat products. Twenty-six of those were about planned events for January 6, with the FBI preparing one and DHS preparing two of the threat products.

“Law enforcement agencies may use posts on social media platforms and other open source information to identify potential criminal activity, to develop ‘threat products,’ and to conduct criminal investigations,” wrote GAO. “Agencies must consider the protection of privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties when collecting and sharing this information.”

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Jordan Smith
Jordan Smith
Jordan Smith is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.