On the 23rd of January two tourists from the United Kingdom arrived at Los Angeles International Airport, on board Air France Flight 74 from Paris, for a vacation in Southern California. Instead of posting their trip to Twitter, comments made on Twitter got them deported.
Under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Publicly Available Social Media Monitoring and Situational Awareness Initiative, compliant with Section 515 of the Homeland Security Act (6 U.S.C. § 321d(b)(1)), the agency scours social media chatter seeking information related to threats against the United States. In the process of reviewing millions of Twitter comments, public Facebook pages, blogs, Tumblr pages, Youtube channels, tweets posted by Leigh Van Bryan on the 3rd of January were flagged.
Mr. Van Bryan’s tweets that were flagged by the DHS stated “Free this week for a quick gossip/prep before I go and destroy America?” followed by a tweet stating “3 weeks today, we’re totally in LA pissing people off on Hollywood Blvd and diggin’ Marilyn Monroe up!”
Mr. Van Bryan’s tweets, which were frivolous, laced in slang phrases and referencing the Fox TV Show The Family Guy were taken literally, rather than read in context or analyzed to determine their potential to constitute a legitimate threat to U.S. national security.
Had DHS analysts reviewed the tweets, grasping Mr. Van Bryan’s colloquial usage of the word “destroy,” maybe this situation would have avoided, although the second tweet by Mr. Van Bryan stating he’d be digging up Marilyn Monroe’s grave is really where the DHS and U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (US CBP) literal interpretation of the tweeted comments really comes off the rail (and by coming off the rails, I don’t mean that literally, I mean it in the sense that what occurred is absurd).
When Mr. Van Bryan and his travel companion, Emily Bunting, were questioned by US CBP upon arrival at Los Angeles International Airport they were questioned extensively about their intent to dig up Marilyn Monroe’s grave. US CBP was so focused on this intent, which is of no threat to national security, that the travelers’ bags were searched for shovels.
Had the DHS of US CBP spent less than 20 seconds researching “we’re totally in LA pissing people off on Hollywood Blvd and diggin’ Marilyn Monroe up!” they would have discovered the tweet is not only a quote from The Family Guy, but that Ms. Monroe’s body is entombed in a mausoleum at the Westwood Village Memorial Park, which is off of Wilshire Blvd and the crypt is more than two feet above ground.
Rather than DHS and US CBP agents using logic, reasoning and human analysis or Mr. Van Bryan’s tweets, the agency has proven the dangers of relying on an automated keyword scraping system, trolling social media sites, without human intervention. The DHS’s predilection for using technology that is not analyzed before reaching the front lines wastes the agencies resources and for Mr. Van Bryan and Ms. Bunting, landed two innocent tourists in a U.S. Customs and Border Protection central holding facility, before being deported the next day.
As a final “Welcome To America” parting gift, the two were informed they must now seek visas from the U.S. Embassy before travel to the United States.
National Security is serious business, and the job of Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents is challenging. Somewhere in the challenges security agents face in determining legitimate threats, agents must exercise their own common sense. If a message found while seeking threats through situational awareness keyword searches of social media chatter, agents must seek context before reacting. Should a threat be deemed worthy of further investigation, agents must have the ability to clear a threat after interview and search of detailed parties … because without the interjection of common logic and human intervention in keyword searches for threats, there is bound to be a massive amount of misinterpreted comments that will needlessly be investigated.