Do You Think The US Government Is Monitoring Social Media?

I had the news on in the background while performing morning ablutions. It was tuned to CBS This Morning – Charlie Rose has recently joined the lineup and my wife, a former news producer, favors both Rose and the Tiffany Network. But the piece that was running as I washed the sleep from my eyes was simply unbelievable.

It was about the two unfortunate british tourists detained by Homeland Security over jokes on Twitter about “destroying America” (a colloquialism for partying – think “tear up the town”) and “digging up Marilyn Monroe” whilst in Hollywood. DHS cuffed the poor kids and tossed them in a detention center with “inner city criminals,” according to reports, then sent them back home. Access denied.(I tweeted the story when it happened, then forgot about it.)

Silly stuff, but also serious – I mean, if DHS can’t tell a 140-character colloquialism from a real threat….(Slap Forehead Now). CBS had managed to get an interview with the unfortunate couple, who were back in the UK and most likely never able to travel here again.

The interview wasn’t what woke me up this morning, it was what CBS’s “Terrorism Expert” had to say afterwards. Apparently Homeland Security claims it is NOT monitoring Twitter and other social media, instead, it got a “tip” about the tweets, and that’s why the couple was detained. The on-air “expert,” who used to run counter-terror for the LAPD and was an official at DHS as well, was asked point blank if the US Government was “monitoring social media.” He flatly denied it. (His comments, oddly, were cut out of the piece that’s now on the web and embedded above).

I do not believe him. Do you? And if they really are not – why not? Shouldn’t they be? I was curious to your thoughts, so here’s a poll:

And then, here’s the next one. Regardless of whether you think it actually IS monitoring….

31 thoughts on “Do You Think The US Government Is Monitoring Social Media?”

  1. John, way back in 1998 when I was at a company called Mindmaker, a guy from, let me just say, Federal authorities, approached me to get a license to some of our natural language processing software.  His purpose (as I was told): to “test it’s viability” for monitoring chat rooms for possible human trafficking / child pornography talk.  This was pre 9/11, pre-Twitter, and this guy was quite serious about monitoring.  That’s all I’m saying.

    1. Oh, I have no illusions about this, I am quite sure the monitoring is happening. But what I find ridiculous is that we have sources on CBS News saying the opposite, as well as DHS. Don’t lie to us, is my point….we should know what’s being monitored and why.
      I think I’ll ask for official US Govt. response to this.

  2. Hi John, great find — this would get me leaping out of bed! I’ll add some texture to Tim’s comment: I know folks who run the counter-terrorism unit for the LAPD and for one, they would never, ever endorse anyone making public statements (re: the cut off section of the news piece); for another I highly doubt they had anything to do with this debacle (wow!). As for the moral implications around monitoring, this is one of those things that for me, personally, I would opt for, especially since I have nothing to hide as a citizen. With that said, privacy in the hands of Big Brother certainly freaks people out, and understandably so. To the best of my knowledge, monitoring has been done “responsibly” and “intelligently”… at least through the CTU. And I’ll leave it at that 😉

  3. This gives a whole new meaning to the phrase: anything you say can and will be used against you. And it makes you wonder whatever happened to the word intelligence – like the I in CIA. 

  4. Of course governments are going to monitor social media. Just in the same way that they read newspapers, monitor radio programmes and watch television. Social media is a classic source of what security services would call open source intelligence. I would be surprised if this also wasn’t the case with email, IM, VoIP and cellphone usage. What I found more interesting and depressing is that the US government hasn’t managed to get technology that parses messages through context and cultural filters – or is choosing not to use it.

    Being a foreign national visiting the US is not a particuarly pleasant experience, in my empirical experience I have found entering countries like Switzerland, Hong Kong and China to be a more civilised process

    Lastly it seemed appropriate to mention here that there is also a concern abroad that the US government actively uses entry point checks for aggressive industrial espionage under the guise of ‘anti-terrorism’ measures; whether you believe this or not depends on how security conscious you are. Given the European Union’s report on ECHELON a decade ago, the hacking episodes mentioned in it and non-US concerns over the USA PATRIOT Act this may have added credence to such opinions.

  5. Well social network sites are a public platform. Saying something on Twitter or Facebook to them is likely analogous to standing up and saying the same thing in the airport they likely posted the message from. This is just another event in continuing pattern showing the US overreacting. 

  6. The key is not in the monitoring, regardless of frequency or retention. Technology makes the monitoring and data-mining trivial. Any of us could do it, given the right [trivial] knowledge and awareness of the [mostly open-source] tools available. The key to effective, long-term benefit is in the analysis and interpretation of the data. 

    When the body’s immune system can’t tell the difference between a harmless bit of junk floating in our blood, airway or lymphatic system from something that actually has a high probability of harming us, we consider it an allergy; an inappropriate response to the environment. Too strong an inappropriate response is called anaphylactic shock, and the person experiencing it is in serious risk of rapidly dying.

    The immune system of western society (supposedly the most highly evolved), is currently too crude to effectively police our communal physiology.We put all the emphasis on surveillance and hardly any on interpretation of the findings. Racial profiling, narrow-eyed readings of the meaning derived from the thoughtless progression of a few words. Without trained, open-minded, lateral thinking and intelligent analysts, skilled in the digital automation techniques of sifting and comparing possible threats, false-positives are inevitable. My biggest worry about the culture surrounding and increasingly controlling the mindset of threat assessment is the classic security paradigm: the safest network of all is the one with no traffic.

    The safest vault is the one with no door.We can’t let such simplistic empiricist thinking control the interpretations of the data. It simply interferes with everyone’s possibility of benefiting from the use of such technological innovation.

  7. The US government is a many-headed Hydra, and those heads don’t talk to each other, as we learned to our dismay on 9/11.   Of course the NSA and the FBI are monitoring social media, and the CIA probably is too, but only international sources, fer sure.  But since the FBI is part of the DHS, if someone from DHS says they’re not monitoring, they’re either clueless or lying.  Probably the former.  Or they have a contractor monitoring for them, so that they have plausible deniability.  In any case, in 21st century america, the Constitutional right to be confronted by your accuser has acquired so many loopholes that it might as well be nonexistent. 

    1. I think we’ll have case law about this in the next ten years that will clarify, and I hope, fall to the good.

    1. Yeah, that’s why DHS statement was so silly. I’ve read all manner of pieces about stuff like this, and I’d frankly be shocked were it actually true that the USG isn’t monitoring social media.

  8. Most branches of the US and local government that are concerned with counter-terrorism efforts either lack the resources (think of local police departments) or are forbidden by law (think most Federal agencies and services) from monitoring US Citizens’ conversations.  So who among our several million fellow citizens working for all these secretive government agencies do you believe is so firmly entrenched in the fantasy of being above the law that they are sitting there watching us Tweet about “Dancing with the Stars” and “Fringe”?

  9. I don’t mind the goverment monitoring public media, but I do mind them not understanding common slang terms.  This reminds me of the guy who, when asked at an airport why he was travelling to a US destination, said he was there to “shoot” someone.  He was a well-known filmmaker.  And of course, he was detained.

  10. Oh i think they are in some way, they should, because without monitoring people going crazy every where, but the question is do they have right to do it

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