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

By Nancy Gohring
Thu, March 15, 2012

IDG News Service (Seattle Bureau) — 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.

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