It’s official, the Secret Service can’t take a joke. A work order was posted Monday for the development of new software tools for analyzing social media content that, among other things, is supposed to have the “ability to detect sarcasm,” (h/t Aliya Sternstein at Next Gov). But the desire to weed out false positives with algorithms instead of human judgment points to the programs real purpose: mass surveillance of social media.
The specs in the work order require the software to “synthesize large sets of social media data” and then break it down with sentiment analysis, trend analysis, audience and geographic segmentation, and the ability to search content in multiple languages. The software must also be able to combine “real-time stream analysis” with “access to historical twitter data” and offer agents “influencer identification”. That’s a lot of jargon but it boils down to a clear (if difficult) task: turn the mess of Twitter Inc (NYSE:TWTR) data that no person could hope to analyze into a set of searchable profiles that tells the Secret Service who to keep an eye on.
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The Secret Service also said that the software has to be compatible with Internet Explorer 8, and no, they aren’t being sarcastic.
New tool could be used to track political dissidents
The Twitter Inc (NYSE:TWTR) data mentioned in the work order is mostly publicly available, so it might not be accurate to call this a spying program. But if you assume that criminals and terrorists are smart enough not to discuss their plans on Twitter Inc (NYSE:TWTR), it raises a question of who exactly the Secret Service is going to be targeting with this software. It has all the features necessary to identify and track influential political dissidents who have turned Twitter into a powerful organizational tool everywhere from New York to Cairo, either by our government or by one of its allies abroad.
While the sarcasm detector is funny, the trend towards mass electronic surveillance isn’t surprising anymore. One spec that doesn’t quite fit the mold is that the software have the “ability to quantify the agency’s social media outreach/footprint.” It’s easy to see this as a form of brand management and move on, but there could be something more to it. If the Secret Service believes that meaningful intelligence and dangerous organizations can be gleamed from Twitter, it wants to make sure that it isn’t leaking the same information to rival intelligence agencies.