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May 30 2012

How To Attract Attention from DHS

The vast network of agencies that collectively form what Glenn Greenwald calls the National Surveillance State, in its Big Brother wisdom, has come up with a list of keywords that they look for while monitoring postings on social media sites. The list is broad enough to make virtually everyone trigger a hit at some point.

The Department of Homeland Security has been forced to release a list of keywords and phrases it uses to monitor social networking sites and online media for signs of terrorist or other threats against the U.S.

The intriguing the list includes obvious choices such as ‘attack’, ‘Al Qaeda’, ‘terrorism’ and ‘dirty bomb’ alongside dozens of seemingly innocent words like ‘pork’, ‘cloud’, ‘team’ and ‘Mexico’.

Released under a freedom of information request, the information sheds new light on how government analysts are instructed to patrol the internet searching for domestic and external threats.

The words are included in the department’s 2011 ‘Analyst’s Desktop Binder’ used by workers at their National Operations Center which instructs workers to identify ‘media reports that reflect adversely on DHS and response activities’.

You can read the full list at the link above.

28 comments

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  1. 1
    Tabby Lavalamp

    So if I want to plot an initiative to travel to Mexico and burn some swine so I can enjoy exposure to a cloud of pork, I’m going to trigger a response from your DHS?

  2. 2
    anandine

    I wonder what would happen if the people who made Santorum a dirty word were to do something similar to the words on the list.

  3. 3
    danielkim

    I’m already on the list, since I was involved in an agricultural water use planning project at my university. I had to search for high-resolution satellite images of Jordan, and then send the links to a grad student who would do the image analysis.

    The student, who was from Egypt, was named “Osama”.

  4. 4
    shouldbeworking

    So if I want to be admitted to the US this summer as part of my summer holiday, I can’t use the words “pork”, cloud”, “Mexico”, or “team”? I better watch my language much better than mom ever did.

    Oh fuck,minblew it didn’t I?

  5. 5
    Gvlgeologist, FCD

    I now can assume that this post has come to the attention of DHS, since it uses all of those words.

  6. 6
    Skip White

    So I guess this means we’ll be seeing a new R-rated puppet movie, Team Mexico: Pork Cloud?

  7. 7
    ArtK

    The list of keywords is completely useless as you’ve seen. They don’t simply scan for one of those keywords and raise a flag — there are very complex algorithms that look at context to decide if something is suspicious or not.

    As a more benign example, think of the difference between a Google search of a set of keywords and what the Watson computer did — it was able to look at context to decide which document found by the search was really relevant.

    Saying that this list represents what DHS is doing is like saying the only book you need is a dictionary. All the words are there, so who needs Shakespeare?

  8. 8
    abb3w

    FTB currently gets about 145 hits on “weapons grade”.

    As in, this list of target words appears to be a plague of weapons-grade stupid.

  9. 9
    Marcus Ranum

    The list of keywords is completely useless as you’ve seen. They don’t simply scan for one of those keywords and raise a flag — there are very complex algorithms that look at context to decide if something is suspicious or not.

    That’s correct. They use things like semantic forests searches, so it’s not just purely keyword or keyword in simple context.

    It’s more of a concern to those of us who remember the day when the government didn’t openly engage in domestic surveillance without probable cause. A crappy search that false-positives on virtually anything – is that “probable cause”?

  10. 10
    DaveL

    I’d imagine bodybuilder forums must ping off the charts. Look at these keywords:

    Exercise
    Prevention
    Recovery
    Strain
    Help
    Target
    Power
    Ice
    Burn

  11. 11
    jjgdenisrobert

    Cloud???? Considering the current hype surrounding cloud technologies, the poor NSA must be ploughing through mountains of mind-numbing marketspeak… Pretty much every marketing document from any major software company these days has the word “Cloud” in it…

  12. 12
    tubi

    My head’s in a cloud because I really want to pork Team Mexico.

  13. 13
    Gregory in Seattle

    My COMPUTER INFRASTRUCTURE CRASHed last night, after that BROWN OUT caused my POWER supply to become an IED. That’s the last time I get parts from MEXICO, the workmanship is just TOXIC. Fortunately I was connected to the CLOUD when it happened, so my work wasn’t completely lost; I just need to call the EMERGENCY RESPONSE and RECOVERY team.

    Hey, did you see the game? That SHOOTING was BURN, dude! Go STORM!

    Alright, feds: I’m ready for my close-up.

  14. 14
    Bronze Dog

    The list of keywords is completely useless as you’ve seen. They don’t simply scan for one of those keywords and raise a flag — there are very complex algorithms that look at context to decide if something is suspicious or not.

    As a more benign example, think of the difference between a Google search of a set of keywords and what the Watson computer did — it was able to look at context to decide which document found by the search was really relevant.

    In a pre-9/11 world, I’d be more comforted by the thought that they’re doing something intelligent like that.

    These days, my immediate thought about such algorithms is that they’d turn the dials to produce false positives on demand.

  15. 15
    Modusoperandi

    I got on the list somehow. Then DHS visited. They gave me some medicine. Say what you want about the Police State, but it’s really trickled down well, even to the Department of Health Services. I didn’t even know I was sick!

  16. 16
    ashleybell

    Ha. Someone should write a short story using as many of the words on the list as possible and in as condensed as possible, then go viral…

  17. 17
    Reginald Selkirk

    and online media

    I suspect that includes our e-mail.

  18. 18
    Didaktylos

    What about people who play online war simulations?

  19. 19
    demonhauntedworld

    Surely Ed can find a more reputable source than the Daily Mail for this story? If the Daily Mail said that the sky was blue, I’d run outside and check.

  20. 20
    iknklast

    Well, as a biologist specializing in environmental science, I must be on every list by now. There are numerous words on there that you can’t avoid if you’re in my field (possibly not coincidental? Many people in Congress aren’t too fond of environmental scientists).

  21. 21
    caseloweraz

    ArtK wrote: “They don’t simply scan for one of those keywords and raise a flag — there are very complex algorithms that look at context to decide if something is suspicious or not.”

    I would expect a competent HSD to do that, and have some hope that it’s being done that way under the Obama administration. But given the way the “No Fly List” has been handled, I think some concern is warranted. Consider the following fragment of a hypothetical news story:

    An AVALANCHE of COPS rode the METRO into downtown Pittsburgh last weekend to partake of a PORK roast and HELP the PIRATES achieve CLOSURE on their funding drive for a new stadium. This TEAM INITIATIVE started two years ago when…

    I could double the number of trigger words without a whole lot of effort. Would it raise a flag? I have no idea. I hope not. But the mere fact that a list like this exists raises doubts; as you say, it is completely useless. Why is there a separate category for weather events? And why the instruction to “identify ‘media reports that reflect adversely on DHS and response activities’”?

    These questions are rhetorical.

  22. 22
    grumpyoldfart

    It’s a security issue – there’s no way we are ever going to learn which words they are looking for, or if they are even looking.

    Each side is second guessing (and probably third-guessing) their opponents and no outsider will ever have enough details to know what’s really happening.

    “How do you catch terrorists?”
    “We use this list of words – truly we do.”

  23. 23
    Wes

    The list is broad enough to make virtually everyone trigger a hit at some point.

    Let me chime in with those pointing out how misleading this post and The Daily Mail’s are (as are many of the comments). Internet search is not so simple as “Page contains word X, therefore it’s on the list.” If that were the case, they simply wouldn’t work, as the internet is much too large for such simple-minded crap to have any effect.

    Whatever the DHS data analysts are using, it’s going to be much more complicated than what people in this discussion seem to think. And, no, saying “They’re incompetent” is not rational response to that. The government has plenty of programmers who understand how to search the internet, and how to design algorithms that sort pages according to relevance.

    It’s just simply misleading to say that merely using the keywords is all it takes to get your website flagged. There’s more to it than that. I’m not defending the DHS (no sane person would), but the mere fact that you disagree with someone doesn’t make misleading accusations acceptable.

  24. 24
    Rick Pikul

    I am fairly certain that the algorithm is more advanced than a simple keyword serach. The NSA tried that with Usenet back in the early 1990s, it failed rather spectacularly once people started feeding the line eaters.

    That said, it shouldn’t be too hard to code up a text generator that creates plausible blocks of text for modern search techniques to choke on.

  25. 25
    puppygod

    Sigh. How silly. I don’t know, maybe DHS guys live so sheltered lifes? But where I live even preschoolers know that establishing codewords is the first thing you do when you run conspiracy:

    ‘Hi “auntie”! I wanted to confirm our “family outing” at 10:00 in “Grand Cafe”. I bought two “pound cakes” with lots of “raisins”. They’re delicious! Make sure that “uncle” will be there on time. We don’t want him to miss the “cake”.

    Love, Terry’

    And that’s even without any use of GPG, Tor etc. This will never help them catch any semi-competent terrorist. At best they catch a couple of brain-dead terrorist wannabes. But I guess it never was really intended to catch actual terrorist. I bet the real target are those “Occupy” folks and anybody that might have different political leaning. Land of the free, my ass.

  26. 26
    sunsangnim

    You would think that if they are searching for drug-related correspondence they would know some of the slang involved. I’m guessing most drug transactions don’t include any of the words listed.

  27. 27
    uncephalized

    @puppygod, methinks that would be the main reason the are so many “innocuous” words on the list…

  28. 28
    Ichthyic

    “They’re incompetent” is not rational response to that

    no, you’re right.

    saying DHS is incompetent IN RESPONSE TO THAT alone would indeed not be rational.

    fortunately, there is a lot more evidence on display both on the ground, in the field and in paperwork, to make any rational person conclude that DHS is indeed the bloated, incompetent mess everyone thinks it is.

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