By Vladimir Gladkov
Joking on the Internet is not safe anymore. Even if you do this in your own Twitter account. The sad example of two British tourists, who, instead of enjoying a vacation trip to Hollywood ended up being arrested, handcuffed and kept under armed guard in a cell with Mexican drug dealers for 12 hours, shows that people should start ‘watching their fingers’ when posting on the internet. A light-hearted twit posted by Leigh Van Bryan, who said that he was going to “destroy America”, destroyed his vacation instead and proved that The Department of Homeland Security doesn’t get jokes.
Despite the recent wave of criticism, The Department didn’t even bother to deny scanning the Internet for so called “sensitive words” in order to track down the people who use them. The Electronic Privacy Information Centre – an online privacy group has already accused the DHS of creating false accounts on Twitter to check other people’s profiles. According to the group, such activity violates the Freedom of Information Act. The DHS, however, chose to ignore the accusation.
According to the Daily Mail, the “sensitive” word list includes words like “illegal immigrant”, “virus”, “deaths”, “collapse” and many others. It’s not surprising that the twit of British citizen Leigh Van Bryan, which said, ‘Free this week, for quick gossip/prep before I go and destroy America?’, immediately drew the attention of the Homeland Security. When passing through passport control at Los Angeles International Airport, Leigh Van Bryan and his friend Emily Bunting were detained by armed guards, handcuffed, quizzed and then sent to separate cells to spend the night in the company of illegal immigrants and drug traffickers.
DHS operatives also demonstrated that not only did they feel skeptical about Leigh’s sense of humor but also didn’t watch popular TV shows. The British couple had a hard time trying to persuade the interrogators that Leigh’s other tweet which read “’3 weeks today, we’re totally in LA p****** people off on Hollywood Blvd and diggin’ Marilyn Monroe up!” was not a declaration of intent to commit a crime but a quote a from popular US comedy show, Family Guy. The agents even searched the tourists’ suitcases looking for shovels and claimed that Emily was planning to be ‘a lookout’ while her friend raided Marylin’s grave.
The couple’s attempts to explain to the agents that the term “destroy” was British slang for “party hard” also ended in failure.
‘The officials told us we were not allowed into the country because of Leigh’s tweet. They wanted to know what we were going to do, – said Emily, – ‘They asked why we wanted to destroy America and we tried to explain it meant to get trashed and party.” After spending a night in jail, both tourists were driven back to the airport and sent home. They were also told that now they had to apply for visas at the US Embassy in London before being able to fly to the US again.
The fact that US government agencies scan the internet in search for information is not new. CIA spokespeople officially admit that the agency’s Open Source Center employs several hundreds of analysts based in an anonymous industrial park, who constantly monitor private profiles of foreign Internet users. According to a report by Associated Press, these “ninja librarians” from the Open Source Center look at 5 million tweets a day, also paying attention to chat rooms, local radio stations and TV-channels. The Department of Homeland Security also has voiced an intention to use these practices. While the idea of tracking down terrorists and criminals before they enter the country might sound perfectly reasonable, it’s hard to reject the claim by civil rights advocates that such practices violate basic privacy rights. And one can’t help but point out that Homeland Security officials should learn to be able to distinguish Internet jokes from real criminal threats. Otherwise, the agency risks letting real criminals get away with it while for hunting tourists and party-goers.