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U.S. Secret Service explores sarcasm on social media

News Analysis
Jun 09, 20144 mins
Data and Information SecurityMicrosoftSocial Networking Apps

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If a government agency were willing to pay big bucks for a new program to be developed, yet demanded that it must be compatible with an obsolete web browser used by an obsolete operating system, would you think that was sarcasm, or a joke? Apparently it is a requirement, not a joke, for the U.S. Secret Service social media sarcasm detector.

“Compatibility with Internet Explorer 8” and the “ability to detect sarcasm and false positives” are just two of many requirements listed for the new software, according to the request for proposals posted on FedBizOpps. IE 8 is tied to Windows XP; both are at “end of life” and no longer supported. Microsoft previously warned, “If your Windows XP PC is connected to the Internet and you use Internet Explorer 8 to surf the web, you might be exposing your PC to additional threats.”

Making that compatibility a requirement is sad, but maybe the Secret Service doesn’t have much in terms of its own up-to-date software. The Secret Service has been using FEMA’s Twitter analytics, according to Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan. He told the Washington Post:

“Our objective is to automate our social media monitoring process. Twitter is what we analyze. This is real-time stream analysis. The ability to detect sarcasm and false positives is just one of 16 or 18 things we are looking at. We are looking for the ability to quantity our social media outreach. We aren’t looking solely to detect sarcasm.”

Good thing that monitoring of First Amendment-protected expression is not all about spotting sarcasm, since computers can’t comprehend language nuances. In fact, the Secret Service’s software will likely fail, according to the EFF’s Peter Eckersley. “It’s difficult not to be sarcastic about the idea of the Secret Service automatically, algorithmically, examining all of your social media posts to determine, among other things, that you’re being sarcastic,” he told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. “It’s kind of like having a cop at your dinner table all the time, and that cop isn’t in on your jokes.”

CIA lit up Twitter

Speaking of spotting snarky and snide comments on Twitter, the government had some fun on social media last week when the CIA sent its first tweet.

A huge portion of the quarter million retweets accused the CIA of monitoring everyone even if that was allegedly the first official tweet. The CIA picked up over 533,000 followers with that tweet, but many Twitter jokesters worried what it meant if the CIA followed them back.

DARPA tweeted a funny welcome, before recommending VAPR, its “Vanishing Programmable Resources” that is supposed to do more than delete tweets. The VAPR “program seeks electronic systems capable of physically disappearing in a controlled, triggerable manner.”

The Department of Defense yucked it up as well.

Then there were the “sarcastic” and fake CIA tweets, such as these captured as a screenshot by searching @CIA:

Not everyone was laughing and some like the New York Review of Books flat out tweet-attacked the CIA.

WikiLeaks also got in on the action, tweeting:

After the barrage of tweets and retweets, the CIA then responded:

Twitter wasn’t the only place where the CIA got “social.” People should perhaps think twice before “liking” the CIA on Facebook … at least according to Julian Assange three years ago when he called Facebook “a spy machine for U.S. Intelligence agencies.”

Nevertheless, expect more “social media presence” from the CIA as the agency said, “The launch expands CIA’s online presence, which already includes the Agency’s public website, and mobile, and official Flickr and YouTube accounts.  In the coming weeks, look out for other enhancements, including live streaming capabilities via Ustream.”

ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.