In late October, after a series of student fights broke out at public schools in Prince George’s County, school district officials informed parents in the predominantly Black suburb of Washington, D.C., that they were taking steps to respond. “All has been handled,” wrote Timothy Gover, a school security official, in an email reviewed by The Intercept. With footage of some fights circulating online, Gover added, “Also reached out to A/Sgt Tilus of Homeland Security and they are going to attempt to monitor social media in ref to the Suitland and Wise,” two high schools where fights had recently taken place.
Anthony Tilghman, a local education activist, posted Gover’s email in a community Facebook group. The email listed other measures, including the temporary addition of extra school security to the two high schools and a request to the local police department for reinforcements. But it was the casual reference to “Homeland Security” that stood out.
Two years ago, the Prince George’s County Council voted unanimously to bar all county agencies from working with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a subdivision of the Department of Homeland Security. But if state and local homeland security divisions collect student data, agents could enter that information into any of the many federal DHS databases, creating a backdoor route for federal surveillance and immigration enforcement.
Prince George’s County Public Schools spokesperson Meghan Gebreselassie confirmed in an email to The Intercept that “Homeland Security” was contacted to “support monitoring social media for student conflicts/ to mitigate a possible school fight.” While the county has its own Office of Homeland Security, Gebreselassie clarified that the school district works with a separate Homeland Security division housed within the Prince George’s County Police Department. She said the district contacts the office “regularly for assistance when it comes to ensuring student safety.”
“This warrantless, dragnet surveillance of minors is a clear violation of their civil rights and is an immediate threat to undocumented students and students with undocumented family members,” wrote Daniel Greene, a Prince George’s County parent, in an email to Board of Education CEO Monica Goldson and 13 board members. Greene raised concerns that the district’s practices were in violation of the 2019 ordinance barring cooperation with ICE and said that he would be filing Freedom of Information Act requests for more information. “I don’t believe federal anti-terror and anti-immigration surveillance is in any way suited to the task of settling fights among minors,” he wrote.
Goldson responded by writing that the district would review its actions to ensure that they were in compliance with the 2019 ordinance and that it is the district’s “desire and intent” to follow the law’s expectations and guidelines.
Gebreselassie referred The Intercept’s questions about the collection of social media posts to the police. The Prince George’s County Police Department did not return multiple requests for comment.
Civil rights and legal advocates told The Intercept that they had not heard previously of homeland security offices surveilling students following school fights and warned that teenagers would likely have little idea of how their information is later used.
“Given how central social media is to young people’s lives, protecting people’s social media posts and protecting kids from state surveillance is extremely important,” said Vera Eidelman, an American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney focused on protecting free speech online. “It’s even more pernicious for kids who tend to say any number of really strongly felt things in the moment.”
“Given how central social media is to young people’s lives, protecting people’s social media posts and protecting kids from state surveillance is extremely important.”
Data collected through youth surveillance could be used to bolster already shoddy and discriminatory gang databases, national experts warn. Individuals, typically Black and Latino men, are frequently added to these police databases for trivial matters like standing on certain street corners, having particular tattoos, or meeting with someone suspected to be in a gang. Even though the databases are well known to be riddled with inaccurate information, federal agencies still routinely consult them.
“Allegations of potential gang involvement are where we historically have seen and continue to see real collaboration between the Prince George’s County police and ICE,” said Nick Katz, legal director of CASA, an immigrant advocacy organization. “Often individuals will be flagged for baseless gang allegations — like being in a picture with someone else believed to be in a gang — and then entered into local and national databases which can be used in any way [officials] want.” Katz had not heard of homeland security forces surveilling students after school fights before but said he was not surprised given the way high school students of color are routinely branded as public safety threats.
Greene, who studies technology and surveillance as an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, knows from his professional work how federal agencies can leverage the data they collect through surveillance. In 2017, for example, ICE used surveillance data to arrest and deport Rómulo Avelica-González, a father of four who had been living in California for 25 years.
“The first thing a parent said to me when I brought this up was, ‘Well, you know this might sound scary, but if people weren’t involved in those fights, then they’ve got nothing to worry about,’” Greene told The Intercept. “I think that fundamentally misunderstands what this surveillance is for and how it works.”
Though it is now the largest federal law enforcement organization and the third-largest federal employer in the United States, the Department of Homeland Security did not exist before 2003. Feeling they had been caught flat-footed by the 9/11 attacks, federal leaders launched the new agency with a mandate to coordinate anti-terrorism efforts and doled out hundreds of millions of dollars to establish so-called fusion centers, which collect, analyze, and share information about alleged terror threats. Blurring the jurisdictional boundaries between local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, the centers encourage sharing as much data as possible between all three.
Two decades in, critics charge fusion centers as yet another invasive and ineffective national security measure. A two-year bipartisan Senate investigation released in 2012 concluded that fusion centers had “yielded little, if any, benefit to federal counterterrorism intelligence efforts” and often collected intelligence of “uneven quality – oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely, sometimes endangering citizens’ civil liberties and Privacy Act protections.” In 2020, The Intercept reported that fusion centers were being used to monitor racial justice organizers and Black Lives Matter protests.
“Far from the lofty justifications given for their existence—securing the homeland and so on—the titles of the reports [fusion centers have] produced suggest a focus on criminal activity (supposed or otherwise) so mundane it’s at times comical,” wrote Ken Klippenstein in an investigation for The Nation earlier this year. Klippenstein, now a reporter at The Intercept, found that fusion centers rarely produced reports focused on counterterrorism, opting instead for investigations with titles like “Subscribers of Black Extremism Collaborate Musically” and “Criminal and Violent Extremist Use of Emojis.”
Gover, an operations supervisor for the Prince George’s County school district’s security division, said in his email that he had communicated with “A/Sgt Tilus of Homeland Security” about social media monitoring. The only county police officer listed in OpenPayrolls and other databases with that name is Wantalex Tilus, a Prince George’s County police corporal. In 2011, Tilus was sued by a parent for handcuffing and beating her seventh grade son in a civil case that was ultimately dismissed in 2015. Gebreselassie, the Prince George’s County Public Schools spokesperson, did not answer multiple requests for comment about the officer’s identity. Tilus referred The Intercept to the police department press team, which did not return requests for comment.
In a statement to The Intercept, a spokesperson for the federal Department of Homeland Security said their department “is not participating in social media monitoring related to PG County schools” but did not deny that it could review any data collected. The spokesperson wrote that the state-operated fusion centers exist “for the receipt, analysis, gathering and sharing of threat-related information between federal, state, local, tribal, territorial, and private sector partners.”
Prince George’s County Council Member Deni Taveras, the lead sponsor of the legislation barring cooperation with ICE, did not return a request for comment. The county’s Board of Education Chair Juanita Miller also did not return requests for comment.
An example of how the sharing of this flawed data can be used was on display in March 2017, when six ICE agents raided Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez’s home in Chicago, arrested him, and placed him in deportation proceedings. Catalan-Ramirez’s lawyers later learned that his arrest came from Chicago police erroneously placing him in their local gang database, a measure that effectively stripped him of sanctuary privacy protections he would have otherwise had. The city later acknowledged its mistake, and Catalan-Ramirez was released from ICE custody in 2018. This past spring, national civil rights groups organized a petition calling on DHS to end its practice of prioritizing for immigration enforcement those alleged to be involved with gangs.
“Data is used to build categories, and it all justifies more collection tomorrow. It’s far from being this thing where you’re looking for one bad kid.”
“The thing about bulk data collection is, even if you trust the guys now, you might not later,” said Greene, the parent and University of Maryland assistant professor. “Data is used to build categories, and it all justifies more collection tomorrow. It’s far from being this thing where you’re looking for one bad kid. You’re taking all kids, or certain subsets like young Black and Latino working-class kids, and saying, ‘We’re going to hold on to their socials to build patterns.’”
Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, noted that in the wake of horrific school shootings, private companies raced to develop new social media monitoring software to sell to districts under pressure to take action. These programs purport to help identify potential future shooters, she said, but they have been of dubious quality and invariably capture loads of irrelevant information in their pursuit for red flags.
“You’re talking about kids who are easily misinterpreted, a system where there are significant racial disparities, and you’re basically encouraging this data sharing that’s not vetted,” she said. “How long does this data even follow a kid around? Once you’re in a database, are you forever flagged as being suspicious?”
Update: November 16, 2021
Eight days after this story was published, Prince George’s County Police Department spokesperson Christina Cotterman wrote in an email that her department’s Homeland Security division “is responsible for investigating all non-specific threats of mass violence and bomb threats. When informed of a threat of violence anywhere in our jurisdiction, to include county schools, HSD detectives conduct key word searches on various, public social media platforms.” Cotterman said that if the data collected leads to charges or an arrest, “the information remains in the case file and an internal case tracker log that stays specifically within the Homeland Security Division,” claiming that the division does not maintain data that fails to yield charges or an arrest. She denied that the division’s searches violate the 2019 ordinance regarding cooperation with ICE, claimed that no information is shared with outside law enforcement agencies, and wrote that “the Prince George’s County Police Department’s Homeland Security Division does not conduct ‘dragnet’ searches.”