Social media, crime fighter

Police can use social networks to spot trends, counter threats and communicate with the public. But it also has potential pitfalls, law enforcement officers say.

Social media is an increasingly useful investigative tool for identifying breaking events and potential threats, as well as for surveillance to counter cyber crime and terrorism, according to law enforcement officers.

But because the line between public and private is blurring so much in the online world, it’s wise for law enforcement officers to seek advice from legal counsel about how they are setting up their investigations, some officers say.

Those lines can be something of a moving target, changing from site to site or every time Facebook updates or changes privacy settings, said FBI Special Agent Gunpat “Gunner” Wagh.


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“If I have questions about investigating social media accounts, I go to my attorney first and say, ‘this is what I intend to do,’” Wagh told an audience of government and industry representatives during a panel discussion at the AFCEA Bethesda Chapter Law Enforcement IT Day 2012 April 18. He can then determine whether he needs a national security warrant or a pre-affidavit to pursue the investigation, he said, noting that criminals are getting smarter at encrypting information and thus making it more difficult to penetrate their online networks.

Wagh said that his squad does not data mine or scrape social media sites such as Facebook on a routine basis, a topic that people often ask about. For one, that would generate volumes of data, and you need the tools to analyze that information. And, if you have the data and don’t look at it and something happens, then that poses other problems.

“If people are pushing information out there, so it’s open source, and we are sifting through it [looking for potential threats] then I don’t think that there is a big [privacy] issue,” said Tom Wilkins, executive director of the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department’s Homeland Security Bureau’s Intelligence Division. “When police start digging, then you’ve got privacy issues,” he said, adding that the police department does not save personal identification information, just trend data.

The D.C. Metropolitan Police Department hasn’t exploited the use of social media to the fullest by extending it to the police officer on the street, although the department is equipping them with mobile devices, such as laptops, in their vehicles, Wilkins said.

However, social media is used to communicate with city residents, Wilkins said — the  department has an active Twitter account where citizens can get crime alerts and traffic information.

“I’m really excited to see these professional social tools get extended out to the mobile world,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Scott Padgett, who provided logistics for U.S. Army special operations and is now a business unit executive with IBM.

Police officers with mobile data terminals in their vehicles can access cloud-based networks to use social media tools in their investigations, Padgett said. For instance, HMS Technologies, a veteran-owned IT integration company, provides a secure, cloud-based service called TACTweet that enables real-time monitoring of public and social network sites, Padgett noted.

Social analytical tools are being used by state law enforcement fusion centers, Padgett said. He described a visit to a fusion center, where he saw an intelligence analyst walking around with an Apple iPad conducting an investigation while viewing the same data on his screen that was being viewed by other analysts on their desktops or larger monitors.

Ease of use is a key factor with these applications. Social analytical tools can’t be complex or officers won’t use them, he said, pointing out that HMS has made its technology easy to use.

In addition, police are using social media tools to track crime patterns and upcoming events such as protests for any activities that are illegal or destructive to lives and property, Padgett noted.

Identity management as it relates to social media is an issue among law enforcement as officials ensure that the right person has access to investigative information.

Since professional social networks are being organized around communities, government agencies and law enforcement can decide who they want to share data with just like people using external social networks, Padgett said. “If I am an analyst at a fusion center, I can elect to share [information] privately or across the agency. I control how I share it,” he said.

One thing police have to be aware of is that social media also can be used against them. The Washington metro police have issues with identity and who officers might let into their social networks, Wilkins said. There have been a number of studies and incidences where people have set up fake Linked-In or Facebook accounts so they can go spear-phishing for specific types of people.

Wilkins’ team conducted an exercise recently where someone with a pseudonym identified himself as a college intern assigned to the police department and tried to friend police officers.

“We got a number of takers. That is one of the vulnerabilities,” Wilkins said, noting that some people are very free about sharing friendships with anyone who asks.

The use of slang and code language as well as misspelled words on Twitter and Facebook feeds, are forcing developers to build new libraries to include Internet language, Padgett noted.

“We are using mashup technology to translate from English to 60 other languages,” Padgett said. For instance, if members of a gang are tweeting or writing in Spanish on social media sites, it is immediately translated to English.

“We look at individuals and trends and see what is trending on Twitter,” Wilkins said, regarding the deciphering of Internet language. If it is a trend officers are not familiar with, they try to understand it from a situational awareness perspective. That is where having younger officers on the force comes in handy, Wilkins noted.

Padgett noted that a lot of the discussion had focused on Facebook, Twitter and the location-based Foursquare. However, one of the big trends is using social networks to investigate prostitution rings and escort services. For those investigations there are four main sites: Backpage, Craigslist, Facebook and Twitter, Padgett said.

In one major metropolitan city, whenever a prostitute involved with one of the groups operating on social networks was arrested or detained, the whole network would disappear for about two weeks and then pop up again on another social network.

“Our job is to provide technology to allow teams to tap into the right social channels to fight crime,” Padgett said.

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