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Sarcastic much? Secret Service looking for software to identify emotions online

Published time: June 04, 2014 01:10
Edited time: June 04, 2014 02:42
AFP Photo / Joe Raedle

AFP Photo / Joe Raedle

The US Secret Service is hoping to a hire an internet analysis firm that will be able to examine online postings on social media and other websites and detect when users are being sarcastic and otherwise saying something they do not actually mean.

The law enforcement agency, which is responsible for protecting the president of the United States and investigating counterfeit and other crimes, posted a work order Monday on the Federal Business Opportunities website calling for a tool that will be able to decipher the true emotion that an internet comment or tweet is actually trying to convey.

Officials will use the software, according to the posting, to “synthesize large sets of social media data” and to “identify statistical pattern analysis.” Perhaps the most important responsibility will be to identify “false positives,” thus giving the Secret Service the ability to determine when someone is joking about committing a crime rather than actually suggesting it, for instance.

Yet Ed Donovan, a Secret Service spokesman, told The Hill that the agency is only seeking a contract in order to keep an eye on the conversation about the agency itself.

We monitor news stories about the Secret Service, trends about the Secret Service, just like any other public affairs office would,” he said. Donovan added that scanning for sarcasm is “an attempt not to drink from a fire hose of social media stuff, trying to filter it down and just synthesize all the data that we’re looking at.”

More and more users have either been approached for questioning by the Secret Service and even taken into custody as people increasingly rely on social media to communicate.

In the most recent incident, a Dutch teenager was arrested after she sent a tweet to American Airlines reading, “Hello my name’s Ibrahim and I’m from Afghanistan. I’m part of Al-Qaeda and on June 1st I’m gonna do something really big bye.” The company responded minutes later with, “Sarah, we take these threats very seriously. Your IP address and details will be forwarded to security and the FBI.”

The US Department of Homeland Security, the parent department of the Secret Service, was the subject of congressional hearings just a few years ago after civil liberties groups alleged that DHS employees had created dummy profiles for the sole reason of keeping watch on other users. The department also allegedly collected information about users who criticized DHS policy, specifically the idea of transferring Guantanamo Bay inmates to a Michigan prison.

A full list of the Secret Service’s goals, first published by NextGov.com, is included below:

  • - Real-time stream analysis;
  • - Customizable, keyword search features;
  • - Sentiment analysis;
  • - Trend analysis;
  • - Audience segmentation;
  • - Geographic segmentation;
  • - Qualitative, data visualization representations (heat maps, charts, graphs, etc.);
  • - Multiple user access;
  • - Functionality to have read-only users;
  • - Access to historical twitter data;
  • - Influencer identification;
  • - Standard web browser access with login credentials;
  • - User level permissions;
  • - Compatibility with Internet Explorer 8;
  • - Section 508 compliant;
  • - Ability to detect sarcasm and false positives;
  • - Functionality to send notifications to users;
  • - Functionality to analyze data over a given period of time;
  • - Ability to quantify the agency's social media outreach/footprint;
  • - Vendor-provided training and technical/customer support;
  • - Ability to create custom reports without involving IT specialists; and
  • - Ability to search online content in multiple languages.

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