Tracking social media to improve public safety

Law enforcement has yet to realize the true potential of social media monitoring


Editor’s note: The following article is part of a content sharing initiative between the Safe Cities Solutions Group, an online blog and education forum, and Secured Cities, the premier conference on urban security municipal surveillance, which is scheduled to take place in Baltimore on Nov. 14-15. For more information about the conference or to register to attend, visit the Secured Cities website

The blogging world and public safety publications abound are writing non-stop about the benefits of social media monitoring and public safety.  Whether social media monitoring is used for emergency response or to track the flu epidemic across the U.S., its benefits cannot be disputed.

However, the public safety and law enforcement communities are still using social media analytics in a vacuum and its true benefits have yet to be achieved.  The real advantage is to use social media monitoring bolstered by other tools such as incident management systems, geographic information systems (GIS), and intelligence analysis software that can recognize and illustrate the patterns that all of this information creates.

The technology is already in our hands, it just takes a bit of imagination to fully use its capabilities.  In order to demonstrate this point, I have created an imaginary scenario that captures the benefits of combining social media monitoring with a cocktail of security technologies.

Scenario: Tracking and preventing gang crime

A rising gang syndicate is responsible for an increasing spiral of violence, and the local police force lacks the means to track the gang’s social media communications.  In order to tackle this problem the police decides to use a social media monitoring platform that can collect, log, and filter relevant intelligence gathered on gang members from Twitter and Facebook.  This data can then be transformed into actionable intelligence when uploaded into an incident management system or PSIM, fusing this data together.  The police can also upload all collected data into an intelligence analysis software platform for post-event analysis, pattern recognition and response planning for future gang activity. The potential ways police can utilize social media monitoring include:

• Matching names to faces and collecting data that reveals critical tips to solve a crime or reveals the person responsible, as well as repeated areas of criminal activity and known associates of suspected gang members.

• Deploying officers to areas of criminal activity derived from social media, which can also be correlated to the nearest city surveillance cameras, whose feeds can be instantly displayed in both a command and control center and in an officer’s vehicle.

• Instantly transmitting face shots taken from social media of a suspect and incorporating it into computer aided dispatch (CAD) technology in the event that an officer is deployed to an incident where the same person has been reported.  Matching this social media data to the police force’s own criminal database can be used to transmit critical information to an officer responding to an incident.

• The staff of the command and control center can monitor real-time social media feeds during an operation and can send that data to officers on the scene, allowing them to take action on potential threats and gain situational awareness such as knowledge of improvised gang movements.

There is, however, a critical balance between public safety needs and the public’s legitimate concerns about privacy. Social media monitoring of this sort should be focused and used in instances directly linked to criminal activity or public safety threats.  At the same time, the latest trends in mass shootings and other seemingly spontaneous mass casualty incidents must push law enforcement to use tools and technologies that give them faster and broader situational awareness to respond more quickly and potentially stop an incident before it becomes a mass casualty event. Criminal entities are increasingly using social media to increase their advantage to perpetrate crimes.  Law enforcement should be able to use the same technologies to their advantage by combining social media analytics with other tools that they already use on a daily basis to provide effective and rapid capabilities to protect the general public.

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