The N.S.A. Haiku Generator poetically alerts Homeland Security

Words such as “tuberculosis,” “meth lab,” “illegal immigrant,” “radioactive,” “Hezbollah,” “southwest,”  and “China” and 359 more are among the buzz words that the Department of Homeland Security actively monitors in email, according to a document made public a few years ago thanks to the Freedom of Information Act. That’s not the entirety of the list—the act doesn’t mandate a release of everything—but sending an email that reads “tuberculosis meth lab illegal immigrant radioactive Hezbollah southwest China” will likely get you flagged. 

That also goes for online communication in the form of traditional Japanese poetry, such as those composed by the N.S.A. Haiku Generator, a web app that takes those keywords an randomly arranges them into haiku form. Of the poems it generated for me, my favorite is this one: Smuggling Ice Consul/ Lynch Red Cell mega Sleet Strain/ Secret Service BOSS. Not exactly Ezra Pound, but not too shabby either, for a robot.

The haiku generator was written by Gray Earle, a street artist and activist whose work sits at the fulcrum of technology and politics. “Even though this project is funny (lol), our own gov’t spying on all of us is not. There are things you can do. Yes, you!” he says on the info page of his website, a maniacal animated gif of his head tilting to and fro. 

These chaotic poems may lack cadence, strong visual imagery, and contain nothing of the zen-like meaning of the form they imitate, but the point is to remind us of the often senseless methods employed by government security agencies when it comes to spying. (For more on that, see William Vollman’s article Life as a Terrorist, in Harper’s, where he gives an startling account of being continually harassed by the F.B.I., who mistook him for the Unibomber.) Again, not the best poetry, but as far as making its point, the N.S.A. Haiku Generator succeeds in spades.