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Leonid Bershidsky

Even Secret Service Computers Don't Get Sarcasm

The U.S. Secret Service wants sentiment analysis software that can detect sarcasm. That's a sign of over-reliance on inadequate technology to solve complex real-world problems.
Careful what you type, Mr president.
Careful what you type, Mr president.

There are perfectly serious, and honorable, reasons the U.S. Secret Service should want to analyze social networks using tools with the "ability to detect sarcasm and false positives." It's already been dubbed a "sarcasm detector" and condemned as evidence of government snooping; but what the security agency really wants is to avoid situations like the recent arrest of a 14-year-old Dutch girl for tweeting she was an al-Qaeda terrorist.

The truly dangerous part of this is not even that the Secret Service wants the new system to be compatible with Internet Explorer 8, which I think antivirus software should quarantine if found outside a museum. It's the agency's apparent willingness to rely on computer technology when it comes to natural languages. Though developers would have us think their linguistic tools are quite advanced, they should not be trusted to perform anything but the most rudimentary tasks.