Twitter users beware: Homeland Security isn’t laughing

Stormtroopers searching

Planning to make a joke on Twitter about bombing something? You might want to reconsider: according to a report from Britain, two British tourists were detained and then denied entry into the U.S. recently after they joked about destroying America and digging up Marilyn Monroe. The fact that the Department of Homeland Security and other authorities — including the FBI — are monitoring social media like Twitter and Facebook isn’t that surprising. But the fact that Homeland Security is willing to detain people based on what is clearly a harmless joke raises questions about what the impact of all that monitoring will be.

Leigh Van Bryan, a 26-year-old bar manager from Coventry, told The Sun that he and friend Emily Bunting were stopped by border guards when they arrived at Los Angeles International Airport and questioned for five hours about messages that Van Bryan had posted on Twitter saying he planned to “destroy America.” After the questioning, during which the Irish traveller said that Homeland Security threatened the two, they were put in a van and taken to a holding cell overnight, along with some illegal immigrants. After being held overnight, they said they were forced to take a plane back to England.

According to a report in The Daily Mail, the Homeland Security officers gave Van Bryan a document that detailed why he was refused admission to the United States, and it reads like a bad joke itself, saying:

He had posted on his Tweeter website account that he was coming to the United States to dig up the grave of Marilyn Monroe… Also on his tweeter account Mr Bryan posted that he was coming to destroy America.

Van Bryan told the newspaper that he tried to explain to Homeland Security officials that the term “destroy” was British slang referring to a party, and that his comments about “digging up Marilyn Monroe” were an attempt at humor, but that the officers didn’t listen. The authorities even searched their luggage looking for shovels and other tools, he said.

Monitoring social media makes sense — within reason

This isn’t the first time that someone has gotten in trouble for making a joke on Twitter: a British businessman named Paul Chambers was arrested under the Terrorism Act and questioned for more than seven hours in 2010 after making a joke on Twitter about blowing up an airport, a joke he said he made because he was frustrated about the airport being closed due to bad weather. He was tried and found guilty and fined a thousand pounds, and eventually lost his job as a result of the publicity.

The fact that Homeland Security is monitoring social networks like Twitter and Facebook for certain keywords isn’t that surprising: the department said during a security review earlier this year that it has been monitoring those networks and a list of blogs and other sources (including WikiLeaks) for information about potential security hazards and what it called “situational awareness.” The Federal Bureau of Investigation also recently revealed that it is trying to develop a service that can monitor social-media sources and automatically create alerts based on the information it finds there.

To me, it makes perfect sense for security officials to be monitoring social networks and even blogs. This is all public information that could contain useful signals about real terrorism or threats to national security of some kind, and it should obviously be part of the normal intelligence process. But doing this properly also requires some sense of proportion about what constitutes a real threat and what is clearly a joke. Did Homeland Security really think that a 26-year-old bar manager was a serious threat?

We all know that we are likely being monitored in even more ways now than we have ever been, whether it’s by security cameras or algorithms that comb through tweets and Facebook posts. But that’s not the scary part — the scary part is what can happen when that information gets misinterpreted and it escalates into a major crisis for no reason.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Stefan and Rosaura Ochoa

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