Words with Feds: DHS Releases Social Media Keyword Watch List

January 15th, 2013

After the 911 attacks, politicians took advantage of the deeply emotional political climate to pass laws that effectively eviscerated the Constitution. The NSA now collects and saves everyone’s emails and text messages. Federal agents sift through citizens’ bank records without a warrant. Drones are being deployed to spy by air. Airline passengers were at some points required to pose for nude photo booth pics at the body scanner machine. It’s safe to say that our government no longer views us as citizens, but instead as potential criminals or terrorists.

The Department of Homeland Security was created in the wake of the 911 attacks. Rather than protecting Americans against terrorism, it has harnessed its resources to spy on them. DHS reports have warned law enforcement agents to keep a close eye on environmentalists, pro-gun activists, constitutionalists, supporters of third party candidates, and military veterans. Last I checked, people who are active in their community and/or serve in the military are supposed to be considered patriotic Americans, not terrorists. Now, Forbes is reporting that the Electronic Privacy Information Center used a Freedom of Information Act filing to force the Department of Homeland Security to release a list it has been using to monitor social media accounts. Sadly, the terms chosen are so vague and numerous that broad cross-sections of ordinary Americans might be caught in an anti-terrorism dragnet just for reporting the news, debating current events on social media, or even participating in the spread of rescue information during natural disasters. Check out some examples from the keyword watch list after the jump.

Law Enforcement By Algorithm

If the Department of Homeland Security is monitoring public speech on social media by algorithm, how do we know at what point an ordinary citizen might become a terrorist suspect? For some people, just knowing that this could happen might cause them to fear using their First Amendment right to free speech. Let’s check out the keywords that DHS is searching for in its attempt to categorize Americans as terrorists.

This vague and broad list of terms is supposed to be useful in the identification of terrorism. Status updates referring to pork, tuberculosis, or gas represent potential terrorist attacks in the minds of DHS bureaucrats.

Reporters, Health Professionals, and Political Activists Frequently Use Watch List Terms

A reporter who covers a natural disaster might use several of the words from the above list in combination. A nurse who works to save lives in that same natural disaster might also use them. Citizens often tweet emergency information to help others in times of crisis. Someone who is worried about terrorism might use the terms above to describe potential ways in which an attack might happen as a part of a debate about national security. Civil liberties activists likely use most of these words frequently on social media. How could anyone suggest that the use of these vague keywords demonstrates terrorist ties?

Is this why the No Fly List has grown so huge so quickly? The scariest aspect of this is the fact that these types of lists can be used in conjunction with algorithms to associate people with terrorism faster than humans can effectively double-check the data. This can and likely will slide out of control very quickly at some point in the future.

Americans have freedom of speech and the right to privacy, and, unless an individual is accused of a crime, his or her speech should not be monitored by the government. This is especially true when the words being watched for are often used by health professionals, reporters, and political activists.

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About the Author: Barry Donegan

Barry Donegan is a singer for the experimental mathcore band Look What I Did, a writer, a self-described "veteran lifer in the counterculture", a political activist/consultant, and a believer in the non-aggression principle.