Secret Service Seeks Software to Analyze Sarcasm on Twitter

Wednesday, 04 Jun 2014 11:46 AM

By Drew MacKenzie

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Beware what you say on Twitter — the Secret Service may soon be studying your every word to learn what you really mean.

The government spy agency has announced that it is hoping to buy computer software that will "detect sarcasm" on the social media website, The Washington Post reported.

But privacy groups have blasted the plan that would potentially help the agency look for dangerous alternative meanings in millions of people’s tweets, including possible threats.
The Secret Service posted a request online for the software on Monday, and companies with that type of computer capability have until next Monday to put forward their proposals.

Agency spokesman Ed Donovan said the software is intended to allow the service to create its own system for monitoring Twitter, including keeping an eye on trending issues and comments on the agency itself.

"Our objective is to automate our social-media monitoring process," he said. "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."

The agency currently uses a Twitter analysis program employed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but is looking to expand its surveillance.

Ginger McCall, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, slammed the proposal, saying, "It does appear that it’s going to be a pretty broad monitoring program.

"It will likely sweep in some First Amendment-protected expression. It is troubling, because it really stifles people’s ability to freely express themselves, and it has a tendency to quell dissent, to make people think twice before they express themselves online."

Peter Eckersley, projects director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the Secret Service sarcasm spy plan is doomed because computers cannot comprehend the various complexities of a nuanced conversation.

"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," Eckersley told the Post. "It’s kind of having a cop at your dinner table all the time, and that cop isn’t in on your jokes."

Lisa Sotto, a managing partner of Hunton & Williams in New York which focuses on cybersecurity, says companies already use algorithms that attempt to detect sarcasm online and over the phone to measure customer satisfaction, the Post said.

And French software firm Spotter recently said that that it had created a technological tool to detect sarcasm for clients, which include the British Home Office and the European Commission.

Gilad Lotan, chief data scientist at venture-capital company Betaworks, said it can be difficult to decipher whether tongue-in-cheek comments are being positive or negative.

"It makes it very hard to automate these systems," said Lotan, "especially with these charged topics. People can be ironic, sarcastic, and that throws all of the classification algorithms."

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