Prince George's County parents concerned federal government is tracking their kids on social media

Some Prince George's County parents are concerned that the federal government is tracking their kids on social media.

After Prince George's County investigator Timothy Gover saw a social media post warning about kids bringing guns to school, he told concerned parents that he "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." 

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Suitland and Wise are two major high schools in Prince George's County.

Parents started asking questions about who was collecting data on their children and whether the federal government was involved. This story was first reported by Rachel Cohen at The Intercept.

"This is the first time we heard about Homeland monitoring in schools and internet devices," said student advocate Anthony Tilghman. "So I think that was kind of the issue parents were having, you know, why didn't we know this. What are the details?"

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A spokesperson for Prince George's County Schools said:

"It is the policy of Prince George's County Public Schools (PGCPS) to contact the Prince George's County Police Department (PGPD) Homeland Security Intelligence Unit (HSIU) when there is a potential threat of mass violence.

In this instance, a social media post referenced bringing guns to two high schools. The school system is not working with the state or federal homeland security agencies to provide "sweeping" surveillance of student social media accounts or student data."

A spokesperson for Prince George's County Police said that when they are informed of a threat of mass violence, like a school shooting, they conduct key word searches over public social media platforms. 

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If they find information about the threat, detectives use it to investigate the case. If that information leads to an arrest or charges being filed, it remains in a case file and internal tracker log. 

But the spokesperson says, "The Prince George’s County Police Departments Homeland Security Division does not track or keep databases on individuals."

There was also some confusion about the role of Homeland Security in monitoring social media accounts -- in part because Prince George's County has two entities with Homeland Security in the title. 

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The Office of Homeland Security is responsible for coordinating with the state, and occasionally federal, Department of Homeland Security on issues that are disaster-related or planned national security special events, according to Director Dr. Ronald Gill. 

Gill said that there would never be an instance where his office would look at police investigative data before an event occurs. If an event occurs, like a school shooting, the office may provide assistance during and after the critical incident, but the office does not have access to or participate in an investigation of potential school shootings.

Distinct from Gill's office, the Prince George's County Police Department's Homeland Security Intelligence Unit conducted targeted social media searches for the school district. 

The unit investigates individuals who engage in criminal behavior and terrorism. A spokesperson said the unit coordinates and shares information with federal authorities when the case falls under federal jurisdiction. The spokesperson said that where terrorism may be suspected, for example, the Federal Bureau of Investigation would be notified and would then assume investigative responsibility. "However, in the case of a school shooting threat, federal authorities would not be notified," he said.

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Some parents are still concerned about how the school system is handling the threat response. "It makes me skeptical that this surveillance is as limited as they say," said parents Dan Greene. "And two makes me skeptical that they even know the full extent because these interactions with law enforcement can be so opaque, even to the people participating in them."

Greene also cited unreliable gang databases developed by police departments across the country as part of the reason why some parents do not trust police surveilling teens' social media.