Private spaces, public concerns

Sept. 21, 2015
Social media opens a security Pandora's Box

Like most people my age – old enough to have used an IBM Selectric typewriter and public pay telephone – Twitter was a mysterious waste of time when I first had it thrust upon me. Great, not only will I be able see what my “friends” ate for dinner last night or how junior was recovering from his cat food eating escapade when I decided to tune into Facebook, now I will be enthralled by every move and thought popping into the heads of folks on the Twittersphere.

Granted, I did learn to appreciate following my favorite sports pundits and receiving CNN breaking news – no matter how much they ran it into the ground – on my Twitter account. Like most social media I had encountered, my first perception was it was a total waste of time and did nothing more than placate the base element of society. I mean really, how important was it for to me to receive notification, in real time, of Uncle Sid’s colonoscopy results or my buddy’s rage rant after being cut off in Atlanta traffic?

For me, the impact of social media in general and Twitter in particular, came more into focus early in 2011. Although I knew public safety and law enforcement agencies had begun to tap into emerging media platforms to help them manage critical communications, data analytics and video monitoring, there were still no real policies or procedures to convert data into actionable knowledge in most departments. However, seeing how social media drove events of the “Arab Spring” uprisings across the Middle East starting in Tunisia and quickly spreading to Libya and Egypt, there was little doubt how powerful digital media was in fanning the flame of civil disobedience. Following Tunisia’s lead, digital revolution continued as the Egyptian revolution used Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to organize the revolutionaries, transmit their message to the world and galvanize international support. And while the Egyptian government eventually shut down the internet during this rebellion, it did not stop the ultimate collapse of President Hosni Mubarak regime.

As seen in Egypt, activists’ technological knowledge regarding the use of “circumvention and anonymity technology” will inevitably outpace the government. So it is imperative to partner law enforcement agencies with social media companies to explore the different measures that each could take to help prevent or contain impending disorder. Such collaboration began in 2010 when Google and the National Security Agency (NSA) entered into a public-private partnership with the rationale that understanding that the critical infrastructure of the United States is best protected through a collaborative relationship between the public and private sectors.

It is also crucial that we ensure that law enforcement agencies and emergency management centers are equipped with the necessary technological resources to not only respond to real-time threats posted on social media, but are able to extract valuable information from those social networks.

Many large agencies like the New York and Boston police departments understand the importance of enhancing Public Safety’s capabilities to effectively leverage social media for proactive policing, predictive analytics and quicker response times to criminal events. These agencies have created special units dedicated to tracking for postings, photos, and videos of crimes that have already been committed to prevent repeat occurrences

One of the most high-profile instances of social media being used successfully by law enforcement was following the Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013. BPD used Twitter to keep the public informed about the status of the investigation, to calm nerves and request assistance, to correct mistaken information reported by the press, and to ask for public restraint in the tweeting of information from police scanners.

Our rapid technology expansion and new social standards suddenly dictate that our private spaces are open for all the public to see. It is the responsibility of security and law enforcement professionals to understand where the expectations of privacy end and the vault of public information begin. Unfortunately for us all the boundaries blur with each horrific event.

About the Author

Steve Lasky | Editorial Director, Editor-in-Chief/Security Technology Executive

Steve Lasky is a 34-year veteran of the security industry and an award-winning journalist. He is the editorial director of the Endeavor Business Media Security Group, which includes the magazine's Security Technology Executive, Security Business, and Locksmith Ledger International, and the top-rated website He is also the host of the SecurityDNA podcast series.Steve can be reached at [email protected]