Twitter blew up Friday when the CIA, the Big Brother of the world, showed up at the party and stunned everyone by turning out to be the cool kid. It was not the rather visible appearance of the spy agency which surprised the Twittersphere, but the way it entered the room. Saying they could neither confirm nor deny “that this is our first tweet,” the agency lit up a storm of near-giddy activity.
As of the crafting of this sentence, the CIA’s first post on Twitter has been retweeted 194,250 times. Any copywriter worth a dose of salt (and 194,249 other people) bows before the brilliant PR move that this tweet represents. America’s spy agencies have been in a PR slump lately. Just last week, Edward Snowden appeared in a televised prime time interview with NBC’s Brian Williams from Snowden’s exile in Russia. The conversation centered on his rationale for disclosing the evidence of the secretive and warrantless data collection perpetrated against American citizens and allies.
At the time this sentence was written, the CIA’s stunningly cool first Twitter post has been retweeted 196,703 times. The agency has 333,000 followers. (Insert elapsed time for Twitter bunny trail.) The CIA currently follows 25 accounts on Twitter. The list reads, unsurprisingly, like a Who’s Who of United States government entities. It also reads like a really good group of people whose watch lists tryouts one should avoid, including DEA News, Homeland Security, the U.S. Dept. of State, the FBI, and the Defense Intelligence Agency. Three of those organizations employed Snowden as a spy in various capacities.
Snowden said in his interview with Williams that he fled the country because the protocol for a treason trial is a secretive court. He feels he would not get a fair trial if he was unable to explain, he believes, that his decision to disclose the PRISM spying program to journalists was in the public interest. The Fourth Amendment ensures the right of citizens to be secure in their persons, their papers, and their private effects. Implied violation of the amendment keeps security experts, whistle blowers, and former state spies awake at night. As of the crafting of this sentence, the CIA’s first post has been retweeted 197,191 times. The agency now has 335,000 followers.
As with most topics currently in the national narrative, the competing interests of privacy and security divide the nation. Ed Donovan, spokesperson for the Secret Service, admits that his agency monitors Twitter for threats to POTUS. Those who have knowledge of the inner workings of the interwebs are surprised that people expect to maintain any privacy, given the amount of information that is voluntarily shared online. Some may call this naive.
Meanwhile the privacy invasion against the public, without probable cause, disturbs freedom-of-expression advocates and government watchdogs. It disturbs America’s allies too. Angela Merkel was not impressed to find out, for example, that the National Security Agency had granted itself listening privileges to her personal cell phone. A subsequent meeting with President Obama was characterized as “frosty.”
The Electronic Freedom Foundation and the ACLU, both traditional protectors of free speech, report that sentiment against government spy programs is growing. Gallup polls agree. Despite growing opposition to government surveillance, however, America’s spy agencies do not deny allegations of spying. In fact, on June 2, the CIA put out a job listing for a contractor who could help them integrate sarcasm detection into the code they use to monitor Twitter.
Twitter is a very big online space, filled with various people and philosophies. Internet dwellers are just learning how to seamlessly weave relevant keywords into their online content. Figuring out how to avoid trigger keywords for security watch lists is not quite yet trending on YouTube. It has only been a year, after all, since knowledge of spying has been uncovered.
Being able to discern sarcasm and rule out sentiment and purpose, however, would help automated spying programs. Imagine, for example, a stay-at-home mom planning to meet a friend for coffee who suddenly learns that her kid is sick at school. With the new wrinkle in plans, the mom might tweet an agenda shift to her friend, suggesting they meet back at the house. “I’ll pick up the contagion and would kill for a cup of black jo. Add cream and that would be THE BOMB!” she might type, using only 81 characters, including spaces, of the 140 that Twitter allows. To keep this easy, assume both moms are Caucasian and not of non-European, ethnic descent.
Automatic monitoring programs might consider the above tweet to be threatening when in fact the words “contagion,” “kill,” “bomb,” and maybe even “black” would be a false positive threat. It would be easier for everyone–for the boys in the black sedans as well as the coffee-starved mom who is home with a sick kid–to weed out those false positives.
Whatever feelings exist about being followed, it seems Big Brother is cool, and has now been admitted into a stunned Twitter clubhouse. The prognosis for Americans regaining their privacy anytime soon does not look favorable. Snowden, the man familiar with the PRISM spying programs, said that if we do not act very soon to erect strong controls against the abuse of data collection, we may forever lose our window to regain our privacy. With this sentence, 200,928 denizens of the Twittersphere say, “Welcome, @CIA. Three hundred, forty-five thousand of us are following you.”
Opinion by Kaley Perkins