The United States Secret Service is set to purchase software that can track Twitter users in real time, prompting concerns that individuals could face greater harassment over tweets deemed to be threatening or anti-government.
According to a solicitation posted this week, the federal agency announced its intention to use the tool to undertake “sentiment analysis,” “influencer identification,” “access to historical Twitter data,” “ability to detect sarcasm,” and “heat maps” that will show user trends.
The software will also have the capability to “send notifications to users,” suggesting that the Secret Service intends to directly address Twitter users who are deemed to have tweeted something unsavory.
There have been numerous instances where Twitter users have been harassed by the Secret Service after making anti-Obama or anti-government statements that could not be construed as threatening. The Secret Service’s acquisition of more sophisticated tracking software will only serve to make these incidents more common.
Last year, Tom Francois, an outspoken critic of President Obama, was startled by a loud thump on his door and the presence of Secret Service agents who wanted to “take a look around” his house. The agents also interrogated Francois on his mental health and if he had any plans to travel to Washington DC, while also threatening to seize his firearms.
The Secret Service admitted that they couldn’t identify a single post by Francois that could be deemed threatening to the President.
In January, a Florida Republican running for the state assembly also received a Secret Service visit after he tweeted that Barack Obama should be arrested, impeached and hanged.
“A couple of years ago, the Homeland Security Department, the agency’s parent, got in trouble with lawmakers and civil liberties groups for a social media program that would work, in part, by having employees create fake usernames and profiles to spy on other users,” reports NextGov.
“A House Homeland Security Committee panel called DHS officials into a hearing after reports the department tasked analysts with collecting data that reflected negatively on the government, such as content about the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to a Michigan jail. The Electronic Privacy Information Center has sued DHS for more information on the program.”
The Department of Homeland Security has recently intensified its efforts to keep track of what users are tweeting in order to monitor public sentiment and media narratives.
A document obtained in March revealed that the function of the DHS’ Media Monitoring Capability (MMC) desk is to track news websites and social media in order to gather critical information, “during normal operations, crises and extraordinary events.”
“It is essential to monitor the media’s storylines and integrate their focus into the Department’s situational awareness and operations analytical process,” states the document, adding that such work is necessary in shaping “public statements” made by the DHS.
The MMC desk also keeps tabs on numerous news outlets including the Drudge Report, which has carried hundreds of stories critical of the DHS and the TSA in recent years.