Use Twitter, get sent to Gitmo?

The FBI wants new ways to mine social media for threats. The DHS is deporting people just for tweeting. What you say on Twitter and Facebook can be used against you.

New Scientist reports that the FBI is looking for more efficient ways to mine social media data to find bad guys and/or gals. And if you’re only a partially bad guy or gal – or you just play one on Twitter or Facebook -- that’s OK too.

As New Sci’s “One Per Cent” blogger Jim Giles reports,

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation has quietly released details of plans to continuously monitor the global output of Facebook, Twitter and other social networks, offering a rare glimpse into an activity that the FBI and other government agencies are reluctant to discuss publicly….The bureau's wish list calls for the system to be able to automatically search "publicly available" material from Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites for keywords relating to terrorism, surveillance operations, online crime and other FBI missions.

Scanning the full document (PDF), it’s clear the Feds are hoping to get a handle on events like the Arab Spring uprisings as they explode across Twitter and other social networks. But they can use the same techniques and technology to spy on individuals.

In fact, it’s pretty clear they already are. Take for example today’s big story about the pair of UK tourists who were turned back at LAX last week because they had tweeted pre-trip about their plans to “destroy America.”

By “destroy,” 26-year-old Leigh Van Bryan and 24-year-old Emily Banting meant “drink themselves silly on vacation.” However, the National Transportation Security Theater Company (aka the DHS) took those tweets somewhat more literally – detaining the pair, searching their luggage, and then deporting them.

(Skepticism disclaimer: This story was sourced by a UK press agency that pays its sources for stories, and initially reported by UK tabloids – neither of them the most unimpeachable sources on the planet. Just so you know.)

Assuming this story is true, there is only one explanation: The DHS is already using software that scans the millions of tweets sent each day looking for keywords like “destroy America.”

FYI, searching Twitter for that phrase turns up hundreds of hits, most of them talking about how either the left or right wings of this country are out to “destroy America.” I suspect the DHS will have its hands full trying to round them all up.

[UPDATE: Forbes' Kash Hill contacted the DHS, which revealed that the unlucky tourists were detained thanks to an anonymous tip, not a scan of 'the Tweeter' (though the DHS does in fact scan Twitter and other social networks for potential threats). That would explain how the DHS managed to go from a Twitter handle to a passenger name record. Sounds like somebody punk'd them but good.]

The problem with this stuff is not that the Feds want to use technology to catch bad guys. It’s that it changes the definition of “bad guy” in ways that are unacceptable in an allegedly free society.

JT = Just Tweetin’, not Jihad Terror. Hopefully the DHS will remember that, for your sake and mine.

Got a question about privacy and/or social media? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blog eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter:@tynan_on_tech. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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