Words That Catch the Eyes of DHS Spies


As a result of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently revealed a list of words its analysts use to search social networking sites and other parts of the Internet for signs of terrorism or other potential threats. The list, which is part of the Analyst's Desktop Binder produced by the department last year, includes terms, such as Al Qaeda, dirty bomb, sarin, and anthrax, that might seem like obvious red flags (although it is not clear how many actual terrorists openly use such words) along with broader terms that might be threat-related but probably are not, such as plot, drill, exercise, law enforcement, and assassination. (That last one might signal the attempted murder of Irish pop singers, but it is more likely to indicate a discussion of the Obama administration's counterterrorism policies.) There are also some real puzzlers, such as pork, agriculture, cloud, team, and Mexico. I assume the intended subjects are, respectively, swine-carried diseases, farm sabotage, poison gas, terrorist task forces, and drug trafficking. But how often will those bets pay off?

The Daily Mail reports that DHS officials "insisted the practice was aimed not at policing the internet for disparaging remarks about the government and signs of general dissent, but to provide awareness of any potential threats." Still, mistakes do happen. Remember the British tourists who were barred from the United States because of jokey tweets about "destroy[ing] America" and "diggin' Marilyn Monroe up"? It might be best to avoid reviewing any movie or TV show with a plot about an attack on agriculture by terrorists wielding biological weapons. Or even offering health advice that emphasizes prevention and involves medical screening, cutting back on pork, drinking lots of water, and getting plenty of exercise (possibly including team sports). And you definitely should not discuss "Words to Avoid Online If You Don't Want to Join the Government's Watch List."

Addendum: Ed Krayewski beat me to this story by a week.

[Thanks to Mark Sletten for the tip.]