The Department of Defense has broadened surveillance to encompass a new type of potential, U.S.-based threat but it has not publicly described the criteria it uses to evaluate the threat. According to documents revealed by Human Rights Watch through a Freedom of Information Request, the Department of Defense can now conduct surveillance of U.S. persons who some in the government refer to as “homegrown violent extremists.”

But the absence of clear and publicly articulated guidelines about this new surveillance category raises concerns for abuse—concerns exacerbated by the Defense Department’s opaque, multi-armed surveillance regime that already allows little room for oversight.

The Air Force Office of Special Investigations, in a revealed slide deck presentation, calls this new type of monitored person a “homegrown violent extremist,” or HVE for short. Two examples of events caused by “homegrown violent extremists” are given: the shootings in San Bernardino, Calif. in 2015, and in Orlando, Fla. the year after.

The inclusion of so-called HVEs stems from an expansion of the type of “counterintelligence” surveillance the Department of Defense conducts, as a 2016 Department of Defense manual explains. With the change, DoD is now permitted to conduct surveillance of Americans “reasonably believed to be acting for, or in furtherance of, the goals or objectives of an international terrorist or international terrorist organization, for purposes harmful to the national security of the United States.”  

Aside from the two examples given, the new interpretation—and the corresponding slide deck—offer little insight into how an individual is designated an HVE and what type of legal process the DoD uses to conduct that surveillance. Human Rights Watch pressed the Department of Defense for clarity:

“As an example of ‘homegrown violent extremists,’ the Defense Department official who commented to Human Rights Watch pointed to individuals who ‘may be self-radicalized via the internet, social media, etc., and then plan or execute terrorist acts in furtherance of the ideology or goals of a foreign terrorist group.’ However, the official did not respond to a question about the criteria the executive branch uses when designating a U.S. person a ‘homegrown violent extremist’ for the purposes of this policy.”

Human Rights Watch’s attempt to understand “homegrown violent extremists” classification was met with stonewalling. We need answers to these questions.

We do not know how U.S. persons are identified as “homegrown violent extremists.” We do not know, once identified as HVEs, what type of surveillance DoD believes is permitted, or how the data it collects is used. We do not know if a journalist researching international terrorism could be monitored; or if Twitter users who unwittingly retweet propaganda could be monitored.

We understand the safety concerns. Yes, international terrorist organizations can now create online propaganda that can influence a U.S. person into sympathy, support, and even violence. But we also need a clear understanding of how DoD makes a determination that someone is or has become an “HVE.” A policy where innocent users are swept up in DoD surveillance, simply for clicking the wrong link, or viewing or sharing the wrong content online, is unacceptable.

Expanding this type of surveillance specifically to DoD is new, and we need to understand more. A new agency means different rules, different protocols and potentially different legal standards for approval. This morass should be cleared.

Surveillance regimes, as the government has built them, are obscured from public view. The government’s unwillingness to discuss this expanded surveillance again leaves us in the dark, unable to fully understand and unequipped to question.

We demand something simple—more transparency.

To learn more about one of the government’s most powerful surveillance authorities, read about Section 702 here. To tell your representatives that you won’t accept government agents going through your emails without a warrant, go here.