Secret Service Wants to Know How Sarcastic You’re Being on Social Media

In a move that inspired a collective “yeah, right” from every corner of the internet, the U.S. Secret Service posted a work order this Monday for analytics software that can do multiple things — including detecting sarcasm on social media.

The order, in fact, is asking for a multitude of specific tools that can be used to sift through and synthesize large sets of online social data, and then present that data in a visually comprehensive way. While this might seem like a far-fetched plan, the “ability to detect sarcasm and false positives” could be possible in a majority of cases once enough data is analyzed so that context becomes a mapper of how serious a threat is.

“There have been regular, tragically documented instances where a human being whose crime is being too funny winds up with a pile of agents pointing guns at them,” explains Peter Eckersley, who works with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He is skeptical that such an algorithm can be made.

The problem with detecting sarcasm, as the Washington Post points out, is that it’s an incredibly complex linguistic action. Often, the only context for understanding that commentary is sarcasm is knowing the overall viewpoints of the speaker, rather than anything present in a single conversation. Several security experts are worried that this attempt to monitor speech could have undesirous effects, especially considering that the government has the ability arrest people that are posting threats online.

“It will likely sweep in some First Amendment protected expression,” said Ginger McCall, who works with the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “It is troubling, because it really stifles people’s ability to freely express themselves.”

In addition to a sarcasm radar, the order wanted to be able to analyze data streams in real time, use heat maps, identify top social media influencers, and look into old Twitter data. “The ability to detect sarcasm and false positives is just one of 16 or 18 things we are looking at,” explained Secret Service spokesman, Ed Donovan.

Eckersley compares the government’s attempt to listen in on Twitter to having a “cop at your dinner table,” though it’s no surprise that the U.S. would like to have a hand in examining the potentially valuable data Twitter can provide. According to Twitter’s own data, mobile users are 119% more likely to visit Twitter during school, and 181% more likely to use it while commuting. The Secret Service Agency says it is accepting proposals for the project until next Monday.

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