Twitter Users Beware: Homeland Security Isn’t Laughing

Planning to make a joke on Twitter about bombing something? You might want to reconsider: According to a report from Britain, two tourists were detained and denied entry into the U.S. recently after they joked about destroying America and digging up Marilyn Monroe. That the Homeland Security Dept. and other authorities—including the FBI—are monitoring such social media as Twitter and Facebook isn’t surprising. That these authorities are willing to detain people based on what is clearly a harmless joke, however, 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 were questioned for five hours about messages Van Bryan had tweeted saying he planned to “destroy America.” After the questioning, during which Homeland Security agents threatened the two, said Van Bryan, they were put into a van and taken—along with a few illegal immigrants—to a holding cell and held overnight. The next morning, they said, Van Bryan and Bunting were forced to take a plane back to England.

According to a report in the Daily Mail, the officers gave Van Bryan a document that detailed why he was refused admission into the U.S. The document reads like a bad joke itself, saying:

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

Van Bryan told the newspaper 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 the officers didn’t listen. The authorities even searched the two tourists’ luggage for shovels and other tools, he said.

Monitoring Makes Sense—Within Reason

This isn’t the first time 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 had made because he was frustrated about the airport being closed due to bad weather. Chambers was tried and found guilty, fined a thousand pounds, and eventually fired from his job as a result of the publicity.

The Homeland Security Dept. said during a security review earlier this year that it’s been monitoring various social networks and a list of blogs and other sources (including WikiLeaks) for information about potential security hazards and what it referred to as “situational awareness.” The FBI also revealed recently that it’s 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 now being monitored in even more ways than ever, whether 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 this information gets misinterpreted and escalates into a major crisis for no reason.

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