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Published: Saturday, 6/14/2014


Snark hunt

Protecting the President of the United States is a never ending, all-consuming mission. Each day, the Secret Service must weigh the merits of threats aimed directly and indirectly at President 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 suspicion. The service has set for itself the challenge of differentiating sarcastic chatter from real threats.

The Secret Service is calling upon the private-sector computer industry to come up with software that can distinguish between genuine threats against the President and idle sarcasm expressed on Twitter and other social media, although detecting such sarcasm is just one part of the effort. The software presumably would cost millions of dollars.

Coming up with software that is smart enough to read the intentions of authors of tweets and alert the Secret Service once it detects disturbing comments is a tall order. Because the point of being on Twitter is to be followed by others, there aren’t too many civil-liberties concerns at issue, besides the idea of our government monitoring such a large part of what its citizens are saying on social media. (Hint: This is sarcasm.)

On platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, users are accustomed to people they don’t know snooping into their lives. Now the government wants to do it in the name of protecting the President.

The problem is mostly technical. Designing software that would do what even humans sometimes have a hard time doing — knowing when someone is being sarcastic — is beyond the ability of current technology. Protecting the President is necessary, but it would be better to assign Secret Service agents who are familiar with snark to set up a monitoring program that doesn’t violate the privacy of millions of Americans.

Common sense that is applied intelligently trumps technology. And it could even be ready soon.

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