Snark hunt: Secret Service won’t find sarcasm with software

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Protecting the president of the United States is a never-ending, all consuming mission. Every day, the Secret Service is tasked with weighing the merits of threats aimed directly and indirectly at President Barack Obama and his family.

Sometimes threats are conveyed in scrawled letters or emails sent to the White House by disturbed individuals who include their contact information. More often, comments perceived as threats on social media arouse the suspicions of the Secret Service. Differentiating sarcastic chatter from real threats is the challenge the Secret Service has set for itself.

This week, the agency that protects the president challenged the private sector and the computer industry to come up with software capable of distinguishing between genuine threats against the president and idle sarcasm expressed on Twitter in particular, although detecting sarcasm is said to be just one part of the effort. The Secret Service also set a deadline for Monday to submit proposals for this software, which will presumably cost millions of dollars.

Coming up with software smart enough to read the intentions of authors of tweets and alert the Secret Service once disturbing comments are detected is a tall order.

Since the point of being on Twitter is to be seen by the public, there aren’t too many civil libertarian concerns at issue here beside the idea of our government monitoring such a large part of what citizens are saying on social media. (Hint: This is sarcasm.)

On social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, we’re used to the idea of people we don’t know snooping into different corners of our lives. Now we’re allowing the government to do it in the name of national security and protecting the president.

The problem is mostly technical at this point. Designing a monitoring software to do what even humans sometimes have a hard time doing — knowing when someone is being sarcastic — is beyond the ability of our current technology.

Protecting the president is necessary, but it would be better to hire new agents familiar with the concept of snark and set up a monitoring program that doesn’t violate the privacy of millions of Americans.

In the end, common sense applied intelligently trumps technology. And it could even be ready by Monday.

Meet the Editorial Board.


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