Three months ago, a list of keywords was released by the Dept. for Homeland Security after the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) sued the government for withholding the document.
The story has stirred up again by a couple of recent media reports have gotten the social networks sharing the media reports like wildfire.
This got me thinking.
The U.S. government may not be monitoring everything you say on social media sites, it monitors hundreds of seemingly obvious keywords every minute of the day --- and some that are just plain bizarre.
The 39-page "2011 Analyst's Desktop Binder", emblazoned with the Homeland Security seal, dedicates four pages to words ranging from weather terms and cyber security to "south-west border" words and health related terms.
As we head into the summer season, you may want to think twice before tweeting about barbeque "pork" or how the "cloud" is ruining the weather --- a thoughtless comment that could end up with your Twitter account being monitored.
SmartPlanet readers: God forbid you should retweet anything written about "grids" as that term included on the list. Going to the "airport"? Or late getting there because of traffic "delays"? Gotten so angry you tweeted you were going to blow it up? (Well, that last one actually happened.) The rest are all on there.
While statistically the chances of those two words are unlikely, the chance of a genuine suspected criminal actively saying on any online forum: "Let's get the cocaine and heroin in El Paso". It's comical to think that in a day and age of increased surveillance, anyone would be stupid enough to tweet or privately share their criminal activity online.
That said, two teenagers who were set to "destroy America" --- a common term to refer to partying hard --- were deported back to the U.K. after their rogue tweet set off alarms at Homeland Security.
Interestingly, some of the words you might expect to find are not on the list. While "China" is mentioned, the term is written in English. However, considering the tensions between Tibet and China, for instance --- ?????? --- "China" in Tibetan --- should be monitored closer than the thousands of people retweeting a post about the country, or mentioning their seemingly unimportant vacation plans.
Twitter has 140 million users and more than 340 million daily tweets. If Twitter is the only social network monitored by Homeland Security --- though it likely isn't --- the unit must use vast amounts of data processing power to monitor millions of tweets that flag up certain keywords.
It likely has more data-sifting capabilities than those Twitter leverages for its own analytics.
What the government then does with the data again is unclear. Though, we can all but bet it doesn't print it out and stick it on the communal refrigerator for everyone else to see the good hard work of the junior staff.
As per an Associated Press report in November, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) now monitors more than five million tweets a day with the capability to monitor both Facebook and Twitter.
Sister site CNET reported last week that the FBI has formed a new unit tasked with developing new electronic surveillance technologies, such as the ability to intercept Web, wireless, and VoIP traffic. It adds yet another U.S. government department --- including the CIA, the NSA, and Homeland Security --- with the ability to monitoring online activity.
From the few media reports that have covered the story, already the retweets and the combination of words have flooded the microblogging site rendering the document vastly useless.
It's unclear how a "flagged" social media update then connects to an action. It's unlikely that a seemingly inane tweet will lead to a teenager's basement front door will get busted in an armed FBI raid. Although, the chances are the flags at Langley are going crazy with today's tweets.
According to a Homeland Security spokesperson, speaking to the Huffington Post: "DHS will review the language contained in all materials to clearly and accurately convey the parameters and intention of the program."