Public safety sees opportunity, pitfalls in social media

Social media can prove useful in investigations, but the use of Twitter and other tools by authorities has backfired at times

Law enforcement agencies are looking for ways to mine social media to look for threats, but those speaking at a conference on Wednesday suggested that an equally important issue might be trying to control authorities who are causing problems by their use of Twitter, Facebook and other such applications.

Those public safety groups that have started trying to tap social media to do their jobs haven't yet figured out how to sift through the massive amounts of data they collect, said speakers at the Microsoft Public Safety Symposium, held at the software giant's Redmond, Washington, headquarters.

For instance, in preparation for the Rugby World Cup, New Zealand police set up a system that scrapes YouTube, Twitter and Flickr, plotting the message, photo and video uploads on a map. Hovering over an icon with a mouse let an officer see the tweet, photo or still image from the video.

Officers could filter results to look for items posted from homes of known "folks who want to take out your mum," said Neil Macrae, senior sergeant with the New Zealand Police.

The system offered time stamps for when the tweets were made with a high granularity for where they were issued, he said. YouTube had the least accurate location information, he said.

But over the six weeks of the World Cup, the system collected 20 million tweets. "You need to start with a target. With 20 million tweets, it's pretty hard to scroll through," he said.

One person the authorities appeared to target was an "ambassador from a prominent country" who was tweeting his location after a match. Macrae didn't say which country the ambassador was from but implied the U.S. by noting that the game happened to occur on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York. "It was a bit of a security risk that he was doing that. His security detail was a bit apprehensive when we alerted them," Macrae said.

Matching location with social media information can be both a blessing and a curse. There is an acceptance that geolocation can be a positive aspect of social media, but for people in mission-critical roles, it can backfire, said Tim Pippard, director of defense, security and risk consulting for IHS Consulting.

For instance, in 2007 soldiers in Iraq took photos of a new fleet of Apache helicopters that just arrived. Adversaries in Iraq found the photos online and were able to discover the location. A month later, the base, which had been at a secret location, was bombed, he said.

Just last week the U.S. Army released a directive warning personnel about the potential danger in geotagging photos.

Still, social media has become the preeminent source of information for authorities. Pippard pointed to a February request from the FBI for information about systems that might help it better mine social media.

The request said: "Social media has emerged to be the first instance of communications about a crisis trumping traditional first responders that included police, firefighters, EMTs and journalists."

That suggests a major shift that also shows the inadequacy of traditional intelligence, Pippard said. One of the most glaring examples of that shift is that traditional intelligence failed to predict the uprisings in Egypt, which were well-organized using social media tools.

Even if authorities had noticed some social media activity, they also must be careful about the validity of social media messages. "If more than one tweet was coming from an area on a topic, it doesn't make it fact, but we can go there and look. It's a heads-up for the agency to get involved," Macrae said.

He mentioned an incident in New Zealand when a well-known rapper with a large following tweeted that there'd been a shooting in Auckland. It was retweeted countless times. The police weren't aware of the tweet until long after, when it became clear that there hadn't been a shooting.

If the authorities had been using Twitter more proactively, they might have seen the message and sent out their own message to reassure the public that the shooting didn't happen, he said. "If misinformation is out there, you have to hop on before it goes viral," Macrae said.

At the same time that authorities are looking for better ways to manage the massive amount of data they could collect from social media, they are struggling with how to use it internally.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police has developed a model social media policy that agencies are free to base their own policies on. It was created in response to an increase in calls and emails from members in 2009, said Nancy Kolb, who works for the IACP's Center for Social Media. The model policy also includes ways that agencies can use social media to improve their investigations.

Not a day goes by that she doesn't see a story in the traditional media about a department that has been impacted by poor judgment when using social media, she said. Incidents may range from an officer with a personal social media page describing himself as "a human waste disposal" to media outlets being the first to report on an officer-involved shooting.

She also sees issues related to imposter social media sites that look like those for a police chief but aren't. "We're seeing an increase in concern and issues in that area," she said.

The speakers made occasional reference to privacy issues, but mostly to say it wasn't clear how far they should go.

"Do we have the right to retain those tweets and look at them at our leisure?" New Zealand Police's Macrae said. He also wondered about the ethics of using a geotagged tweet to issue a search warrant.

In addition, he expressed concern about the possibility of "coercive forces" building a similar map that plots the location where tweets and photos are issued.

Nancy Gohring covers mobile phones and cloud computing for The IDG News Service. Follow Nancy on Twitter at @idgnancy. Nancy's e-mail address is Nancy_Gohring@idg.com

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Rocket to Success - Your 10 Tips for Smarter ERP System Selection
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Nancy Gohring

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Cool Tech

SanDisk MicroSDXC™ for Nintendo® Switch™

Learn more >

Breitling Superocean Heritage Chronographe 44

Learn more >

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Panasonic 4K UHD Blu-Ray Player and Full HD Recorder with Netflix - UBT1GL-K

Learn more >

Stocking Stuffer

Razer DeathAdder Expert Ergonomic Gaming Mouse

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Edwina Hargreaves

WD My Cloud Home

I would recommend this device for families and small businesses who want one safe place to store all their important digital content and a way to easily share it with friends, family, business partners, or customers.

Walid Mikhael

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

It’s easy to set up, it’s compact and quiet when printing and to top if off, the print quality is excellent. This is hands down the best printer I’ve used for printing labels.

Ben Ramsden

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

Brainstorming, innovation, problem solving, and negotiation have all become much more productive and valuable if people can easily collaborate in real time with minimal friction.

Sarah Ieroianni

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

The print quality also does not disappoint, it’s clear, bold, doesn’t smudge and the text is perfectly sized.

Ratchada Dunn

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The Huddle Board’s built in program; Sharp Touch Viewing software allows us to easily manipulate and edit our documents (jpegs and PDFs) all at the same time on the dashboard.

George Khoury

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The biggest perks for me would be that it comes with easy to use and comprehensive programs that make the collaboration process a whole lot more intuitive and organic

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?