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Top keywords that U.S. Homeland Security use to spy on you

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It's not only businesses spying upon competition -- the U.S. Department of Homeland Security monitors social media too. What are the keywords they look for?

A recently released manual created by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has shed some interesting light on particular keywords that raise the eyebrows of analysts at the department who are responsible for monitoring social media activity.

Words including "dirty bomb", "grid", "epidemic" and "cops" are among hundreds of flagged words that are contained in the 39-page booklet (.pdf).

Recently released following a request under the Freedom of Information Act through a request from the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the DHS' National Operations Center (NOC) use the 2011 Analyst's Desktop Binder as a guide to what may be considered a "threat" online.

Social media networks, including Twitter and Facebook, are watched in order to potentially weed out threats to the United States but to also monitor any commentary which may "reflect adversely" on the DHS or its "response activities", according to the guide. Other words include:

  • Airport
  • Blizzard
  • Cancelled
  • Cops
  • Crash
  • Earthquake
  • El Paso
  • Exercise
  • Flood
  • Flu
  • Law enforcement
  • Terror
  • Pork
  • Sarin

Anyone organizing to "dirty bomb the DHS before going to El Paso", take note --Twitter may not be the best place to discuss your plans.

The NOC collates this information and calculates potential "threat" levels. If you're looking forward to your holiday, tweeting anticipation of "destroying America" can get you on the suspicion list, as the extensive list does not necessarily take into account slang or alternative meanings.

The list is split into separate categories, including domestic security, health, and natural events. The manual also states it has three main missions in monitoring the flow of social media communication:

  • To continually update "situational" information from social media;
  • The second is to "constantly monitor all available open source information with the goal of expeditiously alerting the NOC Watch Team and other key Department personnel of emergent situations";
  • The third, to instruct on how to analyze information gained from online and open sources.

Originally, the pilot scheme created by the DHS was intended to monitor information concerning specific events -- such as the earthquake in Haiti or the BP oil spill. However, after the volume of intelligence available online became obvious from sources other than standard media outlets, in 2010 the scheme went full-time.

Based on search terms like those mentioned above, the project expanded. It goes further than merely monitoring keywords, but also covertly and actively uses agents to pose on social networking site, in order to obtain personal information (such as names and affiliations) of those commenting online.

After these activities became known, EPIC requested information from the DHS about how far individuals are 'spied' upon, and after requests were effectively ignored, the FOI lawsuit went ahead -- resulting in the release of this booklet.

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Charlie Osborne

Contributing Editor

Charlie Osborne is a freelance journalist and photographer based in London. In addition to SmartPlanet, she also writes for business technology website ZDNet and consumer technology site CNET. She holds a degree in medical anthropology from the University of Kent. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure