Viewpoint: Fighting crime with social media
Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have become common ways for people to communicate, but for the most part, law enforcement isn’t listening. Consider this: The first place we hear about a major criminal act in the country is via social media, and even news stations rely on the sites for their reporting. Our police agencies need to become just as savvy, both in reactive and predictive responses to criminal situations.
Recently, there has been evidence of instant messaging and social media networks being used to coordinate crime activity. In Chicago, Philadelphia and elsewhere, police are working to prevent recurrences of flash mob crimes. For example, teenagers have been using Twitter to notify each other as they target stores on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue and can overwhelm private security with sheer numbers in a brief and well-coordinated merchandise grab. There also have been crimes that rely on social media communications to target an individual for robbery in a precisely timed, violent attack.
The good news is that digital fingerprints are providing law enforcement with tips and leads on criminal activity, such as the location of a flash mob with criminal intent, gang activity revealed through posts that brag, and photos that can serve as evidence. However, most law enforcement agencies need to improve monitoring or using social media sites to gather intelligence.
New analytics technologies exist that can pore through huge amounts of social media data to uncover patterns and analyze sentiment. Social media analytics (SMA) can continuously monitor online and conversation data written in any major language to identify important topics and content categories. Predictive analytics can be used to see a criminal threat develop and alert law enforcement to intercede to prevent a crime from occurring.
When an individual tweets or posts information about a target, a crime and a specific time, that shows intent. It does not cross the line to an overt act of conspiracy until people show up at the location and agree that the crime should be committed. When people agree on a criminal plan of action, it becomes a violation of law, and arrests can be made. Law enforcement agencies need to tread carefully here because peaceful public assembly is a guaranteed right, and that is not a right that should be compromised. However, police departments can and should take action when criminal intent is stated on social media sites. The key is monitoring and analyzing the data in near real-time, and providing that information to officers as quickly as possible.
There also is evidence left behind after social media-related crimes. Police are using search technologies in their investigations to examine social media accounts that may have been used to identify a target and a time, and police are checking which users forwarded, “re-tweeted” or acknowledged the information. That sets the stage to obtain court orders to obtain user information for accounts so law enforcement can gather the evidence, make arrests and prosecute.
The importance of emerging social media communication channels has caught law enforcement by surprise. Make no mistake, the communication channels must be tapped by law enforcement very effectively and quickly, or the gangs, criminals, and radical groups will have the edge. If an investigator does not see the related social media activity, then he may dismiss a crime as a random act of violence. But good investigators are quickly learning how to use technology to piece the puzzle together.
Capt. Stephen Serrao is a former New Jersey State Police Counterterrorism Bureau Chief. He now serves as director of Law Enforcement Solutions on the Memex Solutions Team at SAS, a provider of intelligence management and data analytics solutions for law enforcement, military intelligence and commercial organizations. Serrao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dale Peet is a 23-year veteran of the Michigan State Police and the retired commander of the Michigan Intelligence Operations Center, Michigan’s largest and primary fusion center for homeland security. He now serves as principal consultant to the Memex Solutions Team at SAS. Peet can be reached at email@example.com.
What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.