Getting CSI on Your Tweets

Mar 03 at 10am

Like most geniuses on Twitter, you probably like to think your tweets are instantly recognizable because of their winning combination of succinctness and èlan. But if you also prefer to broadcast your oversharing or making fun of people behind an anonymous handle, you might soon be in trouble. The art of forensic analysis, once a crutch of mystery novels where country doctors could tell the exact hour when the dowager succumbed to the poison, has improved dramatically. It’s now being turned on the internet, using tweets, status updates and Amazon reviews as DNA.

Considering how banal so many updates are, that’s pretty invasive. Storing announcements about what you ate or how you feel about Fox News and cross-checking them against other people to determine “suspicious” patterns is a lot like rummaging through someone’s compost. Except unlike produce, tweets are eternal. Granted, this is a technology that can be used to keep people safe, and in fact it’s already being used applied to a national database of cold cases and to locate abducted children or nail cannibal cops. And the story of how a guy calling the grassy median between the sidewalk and the street a “devil’s strip” got him busted for kidnapping is seriously badass. But once the apparatus is in place, it will almost certainly be turned towards other purposes, like anti-terrorism statutes that neutralize critics of the government. 

The art of forensic analysis, once a crutch of mystery novels where country doctors could tell the exact hour when the dowager succumbed to the poison, has improved dramatically. It’s now being turned on the internet, using tweets, status updates and Amazon reviews as DNA.

There have been high-profile unmaskings already. J.K. Rowling’s nom de plume “Richard Galbraith” didn’t last very long, after forensic analysis combined with a tipster revealed that the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling was also the author of Harry Potter. And almost 20 years before that, an English professor outed Joe Klein as “Anonymous,” the author of Primary Colors, the 1996 campaign tell-all about the Bill Clinton campaign that became a John Travolta movie. But that sleuth had a small pool to choose among, as only so many advisers could have had that kind of access to the president. The difference is that now software can be brought to bear on anyone, without a time-consuming slog. It probably already is. And it’s pretty grim to think that people believe they are gleaning all necessary information from a book by turning it into a word cloud and putting it through an algorithmic meat grinder. Not all wisdom is data-driven.

In Dave Eggers’ The Circle, the tech omni-corp develops out of “TruYou,” a program that consolidates a person’s online identities into one verified (and publicly searchable) username. It destroys anonymity – restoring decorum to every comments section – but because it’s effectively mandatory, there’s nowhere to hide. A world without trolls does sound appealing, but unlike TruYou’s users, the extent of our surveillance is never clear. It’s bad for the already-beleaguered humanities to be pulverized casually into molecules just to catch a predator, and scarier if some completely unrelated tweets lead cops to Miss Scarlet with the lead pipe in the conservatory. Internet searches register no distinction between proclamations and casual asides, excerpts from published books and sarcastic status updates. Even the best of us sometimes tell people to go fuck themselves. It doesn’t have to go on your permanent record.

Photo by franhermenegildo via Thinkstock

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