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The Department of Homeland Security has an automatic algorithm combing social media websites to pick out persons of interest Photo by: � SWNS.COM

Big Brother really is watching -- Irish tourist nabbed by US Government due to algorithm

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The Department of Homeland Security has an automatic algorithm combing social media websites to pick out persons of interest Photo by: � SWNS.COM

Irishman Leigh Van Bryan’s experience with the Department of Homeland Security was horrific. Last month he was put on the “watch list”, interrogated, incarcerated and made to pay for his own deportation all because of some slang he used on Twitter.

The Department of Homeland Security has an automatic algorithm combing social media websites to pick out persons of interest. In December, Van Bryan, who planned on going on vacation to LA with his friend Emily Bunting, tweeted “Free this week, for quick gossip/prep before I go and destroy America”. His use of the British slang “destroy” (“to party”) meant his tweets were monitored over the coming weeks.

Paul Quigley, founder of Newswhip.ie, explained in his column on Journal.ie, that the Department of Homeland Security would have picked the Irish tourist’s tweets, out of the daily 250 million posted everyday worldwide, using what is known as the “firehose”.

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He explains that companies who are managing a brand such as Coca Cola, or even media groups such as NewsWhip, monitor social media networks and gather data using “sentiment analysis”. For example, a company like Coca Cola would monitor the Internet for phrases such as “I hate Coca Cola” or the words “Coke” and “disappoint”.

Quigley says that the DHS has something similar picking up on words such as “attack” or “destroy”. It seems that in Van Bryan’s case the DHS’s algorithm spotted the words “destroy” and “America” in close proximity and his account was put on the “watch list”.

Upon their arrival in LAX the pair were separated and interrogated. Van Bryan was then transported to a prison in a cage (where he had a panic attack). He was imprisoned overnight before he and his companion were made to pay for their own plane tickets back to the UK.

Free speech advocates worry that some human should have realized the mistake made by the DHS before these holiday makers were deported. They ask the question are the computers taking over?
What do you think?

Earlier this year, Reuters reported that the DHS was officially monitoring dozens of popular websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Hulu, WikiLeaks, Huffington Post, and the Drudge Report, among others.

Since 2010, the DHS has been operating a “Social Networking / Media Capability” which involves monitoring of “publicly available online forums, blogs, public websites and message boards."

In the official government report they state that the purpose of this is to “collect information used in providing situational awareness and establishing a common operating picture.”

That fact that the DHS are using an algorithm to pick up on terms such as “destroy” and “America” makes sense, but it is the fact that Van Bryan and his companion ended up being interrogated, incarcerated, and deported without anyone using common sense and intervening which his worrying.

The DHS probably sees the story of Van Bryan and Bunting as a success, however, what does this mean for the future of social networking and travel. Do we have to carefully choose each word we use on Twitter and Facebook? Are jokes and slang to be banned? Where will that end?

Here's Mashable's video on Bryan Van Leigh's experience:

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