The Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology (S&T) branch is supporting an effort begun last December to better leverage social media to vet immigrants for potential ties to terrorism in the wake of the events in San Bernardino, Calif., a senior department official told Congress on Wednesday.

S&T is using its Data Analytics Engine in a pilot with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to address K-1 visas that are issued to foreigners that are coming to the U.S. to marry a U.S. citizen and to address refugee screening requirements, Reginald Brothers, under secretary of S&T, stated in his prepared remarks to the Senate Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee.

Dr. Reginald Brothers, Under Secretary for Science and Technology, DHS
Dr. Reginald Brothers, Under Secretary for Science and Technology, DHS

The San Bernardino shootings were carried out by Syed Farook, who was a U.S. citizen, and his wife Tashfeen Malik, who had come to the U.S. on a K-1 visa. In the aftermath of the shootings, there has been keen interest on whether vetting Malik’s social media postings would have turned up any links to terrorist organizations, in particular the Islamic State.

Following the shootings, DHS stood up a Social Media Task Force led by its Office of Intelligence and Analysis “to assess social media policies, processes, and capabilities and to develop recommendations to leverage departmental authorities and capabilities to exploit social media during the vetting process,” Brothers stated.

A second way that S&T is supporting the new social media effort is working with USCIS to experiment with commercial tools “to understand how publicly-available social media can inform the immigration vetting process,” Brother stated.

S&T also issued a Request for Information, hosted an Industry Day and has “reviewed hundreds of tools” to understand the existing capabilities for DHS’ needs in the areas of “screening and vetting, investigations, and situational awareness,” Brother stated, adding that his organization will continue to work with industry on identifying and further developing analytic tools to exploit social media to further DHS missions.