social media mysteryTwo stories caught my eye this week relating to social media and law enforcement. One was pertaining to police pleading with the public not to use Twitter during the mountain cabin stand off with the ex-cop cum alleged cop-murderer Christopher Dorner, for fear that the updates put the lives of officers in jeopardy. The other was about Brooklyn Deputy Inspector Joseph Gulotta using social media to track down gang members and confiscate guns. This strategy has helped his precinct nab more guns than any other in the city. But it also got Gulotta on the radar of criminals, who ordered a hit on him.

While law enforcement is lagging behind in social media (largely because of cultural inertia and puny budgets that don’t allow investing in add-on tools) it plays a pivotal role in expediting investigations through online monitoring techniques. Yet, even as social media looks to provide an extra set of eyes for police officers, it can be a double-edged sword due to privacy concerns.

Unless investigators can convince a judge to issue a subpoena to social network sites like Facebook, Twitter, and others – and these businesses comply – law enforcement officials must follow the same privacy policies as everyone else when it comes to checking out what people are doing and saying online.

Depending on the budget, police officers’ usage of social media may be a simple as looking for suspicious activity in their neighborhood by searching for keywords relevant to the area – gang names, organized crime groups, hotspots for illegal activity. And it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes’ eye for detail to track down loudmouthed criminals, who seem to take great pride in showing off their new Smith & Wessons on Instagram, bragging to friends on Facebook about their latest initiation jump, or hopping on Twitter to divulge details of the latest place they looted. Sometimes geolocation apps also work against them.

If the agency had adequate funding, the opportunity to invest in technology add-ons, tools similar to what businesses use for tracking consumer behavior, could provide further support for the investigation. Unlike businesses, however, law enforcement can’t legally track anyone and everyone. The target of the search must be part of on an ongoing investigation, according to guidelines laid out by the Criminal Intelligence Systems Operating Policies.

Bright Planet, a company that has partnered with the CIA, has recently launched a local-level social-media monitoring tool focused on Twitter. For a few hundred dollars a month, it provides tweet tracking, geolocation service, real time feeds, and other features. Unfortunately, for the company it has been challenging for the service to gain traction, as the company is “selling an implied need, not an explicit need.”

While these are run of the mill tactics employed by agencies throughout the US, the technology of facial recognition layered on top of social media networks creates a bit of a gray area over the privacy vs. safety argument. The matter has less to do with surveillance of a suspect in the real world and more to do with bystanders’ data being pulled into police databases, creating a digital shadow. With more than 9 billion photos uploaded on Facebook every month, linking offline identity to online is not difficult. Currently, the guidelines for dealing with storage and destroying, are self-regulated to respect privacy policy, but coming from an industry that has self-proclaimed itself “behind the times,” I remain wary.

Even as the law enforcement agents I interviewed, Lieutenant Nathan Steele and Constable Scott Mills, discussed how social media makes their lives easier, they still experience the ramifications of online life. Just like us, their public information is readily available and for people who want to harm them, social media privacy settings are a necessity.

Some police officers also experience other forms of revenge. One cop, who wished to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, said certain online organizations, like Anonymous, have targeted law enforcement officials and committed acts of identity theft and releasing of financial information. He provided the infamous tale of Lieutenant John Pike, the police officer who went way overboard during UC Davis protests, spraying individuals with pepper spray. Anonymous responded by releasing his cell number, email, and home address.

“We have no problem targeting police and releasing their information even if it puts them at risk, because we want them to experience just a taste of the brutality and misery they serve us on an everyday basis,” Anonymous said in a YouTube video after the UC Davis incident.

Fortunately for law enforcement agents local seminars, along with larger conferences from organizations like SMILE, or Social Media the Internet and Law Enforcement address protective actions officers should take to ensure their privacy. It is pretty basic — put a generic picture on social media, keep personal and professional life separate, setting strict privacy settings

Yet, Nathan Steele, an instructor teaching ethics of technology to law enforcement, pointed out, he often sees police officers whipping out their phones in the middle of class to wiping clean any personal information they posted across various social media platforms.

In the world of law enforcement, social media has shifted the paradigm for how information is relayed. Law enforcement will have to do better at catching up.

Until then, cops will have to rely on the mere stupidity of criminals.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for PandoDaily]