Big Brother is Watching You Tweet

OK the title is misleading because Big Brother is watching more than just your Twitter feed but Twitter is one of the sites being monitored by General Dynamics under a contract granted by the Department of Homeland Motherland Security (DHS).

EPIC’s FOIA lawsuit forced the DHS to disclose 285 pages of records. The documents include contracts, price estimates, Privacy Impact Assessment, and communications concerning DHS Media Monitoring program. These records make public, for the first time, details of the DHS’s efforts to spy on social network users and journalists.

The records reveal that the DHS is paying General Dynamics to monitor the news. The agency instructed the company to monitor for “[media] reports that reflect adversely on the U.S. Government, DHS, or prevent, protect, respond government activities.”

The documents can be viewed at the provided link. What makes this interesting is the fact that this monitoring was apparently used to arrest a person traveling to the United States:

Two British tourists were barred from entering America after joking on Twitter that they were going to ‘destroy America’ and ‘dig up Marilyn Monroe’.

Leigh Van Bryan, 26, was handcuffed and kept under armed guard in a cell with Mexican drug dealers for 12 hours after landing in Los Angeles with pal Emily Bunting.

The Department of Homeland Security flagged him as a potential threat when he posted an excited tweet to his pals about his forthcoming trip to Hollywood which read: ‘Free this week, for quick gossip/prep before I go and destroy America’.

Bruce Schneier, who I obtained this story from is doubtful that General Dynamic’s monitoring of Twitter is what actually lead to the arrest of the two British tourists:

Still, I have trouble believing that this is what happened. For this to work General Dynamics would have had to monitor Twitter for key words. (“Destroy America” is certainly a good key word to search for.) Then, they would have to find out the real name associated with the Twitter account — unlike Facebook or Google+, Twitter doesn’t have real name information — so the TSA could cross-index that name with the airline’s passenger manifests. Then the TSA has to get all this information into the INS computers, so that the border control agent knows to detain him. Sure, it sounds straightforward, but getting all those computers to talk to each other that fast isn’t easy. There has to be more going on here.

Twitter does have a mechanism for entering your real name as I have my real name entered in it. When you go to my Twitter feed you can see my user name is ComradeBurg but the name displayed is Christopher Burg and that I’m in Minnesota. Therefore it is conceivable that the monitoring being done by General Dynamics grabbed the offending tweeter’s real user name and location, fed to to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to be cross referenced with flight manifests, and a target could be found and arrested.

Of course this all depends on the Twitter user entering the real name and real location, but that is a problem that must be overcome when monitoring any website. I do agree with Schenier’s remark though because as he said getting all of those computers (not to mention those bureaucracies) to talk to each other so quickly is unlikely. Claiming that the target was arrested solely from obtaining their Twitter information seems like propaganda being thrown out to scare the public into obedience. In fact that’s exactly what the concept of Big Brother was supposed to do in 1984’s society, scare the populace into obedience. Truthfully nobody was sure whether or not Big Brother was actually watching them, but the fear of being watched kept the people from getting too many thoughts of revolution in their heads.