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Target on your cyber back: DHS has a list of words deemed ‘suspicious’

Published time: May 26, 2012 16:52
Edited time: May 26, 2012 23:29
US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) employees work on the Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT) operational watch floor where they monitor, track, and investigate cyber incidents (Reuters / Chris Morgan / Idaho National Laboratory)

US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) employees work on the Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT) operational watch floor where they monitor, track, and investigate cyber incidents (Reuters / Chris Morgan / Idaho National Laboratory)

The Department of Homeland Security has flagged hundreds of words as "suspect" – and while many make sense, like "Al Qaeda," some are just plain odd. For example, the DHS may dig through your cyber life if you write something about snow. Or pork.

So, you’ve just come back from a beach holiday in Mexico and posted about it on your blog. Or maybe you’ve tweeted about skiing lessons? Updated your status, saying you’re stuck home with food poisoning?

All those things will tweak the DHS antennae, according to a manual published by the agency. The Analyst’s Desktop Binder, used by agency employees at their National Operations Center to identify "media reports that reflect adversely on DHS and response activities," includes hundreds of words that set off Big Brother’s silent alarms.

Department chiefs were forced to release the manual following a House hearing over documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. It revealed how analysts monitor social networks and media organizations for comments that "reflect adversely" on the government.

Somehow, it remains unclear exactly how your food poisoning may reflect adversely on the government – unless you’re a civil servant that had lunch at the work cafeteria and are now blaming the tuna salad for your misfortune. It’s even less clear how natural phenomena like snow or ice reflect badly on the powers that be in Washington DC – unless, of course, they have somehow convinced themselves they can control the elements.

I’ve also wondered whether the monitoring is cumulative. Will one mention of an airplane be less worrying to the Department of Homeland Security than, say, 20 to 30 words from the no-no list? What if I’m writing the weather report? What if I blew a tire somewhere on an interstate and am sending a message for help? Both the words ‘help’ and ‘interstate’ are on the list. Does that mean I can expect men in black to come before the AAA?

It’s also hard to believe that the supposed terrorists that the DHS is on the lookout for are that stupid. Can you honestly imagine one person posting “hey, let’s go make a pipe bomb and blow up a police car this weekend” on a friend’s wall? I’d imagine people who plot terrorist acts are focusing on two things: not getting caught and getting their job done. Why on earth would they broadcast their malicious intentions online?

And so, like many of the DHS's brilliant, thought-out programs, this one seems to be directed at the unsuspecting, innocent general public. Only now, as well as possibly being branded a terrorist for not wanting to use a credit card or buying a flashlight, you might get locked up for blogging about clouds. (Very dangerous word, cloud. Who knows what it could mean.)

I am by no means diminishing the need for domestic security. But the DHS seem to be taking the notion of prevention a little too far, and they seem to be accounting for their actions less and less. To quote a (possibly) paranoid Roman: “who will guard the guardians?”

Katerina Azarova

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List of words used by the National Operations Center to monitor social media (taken from the DHS Analyst’s Desktop Binder)





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