Social media websites are surging in popularity and it is becoming more apparent to law enforcement professionals that these forums are ripe with data that can be used to prevent and solve crimes.
The New York Police Department (NYPD) is going so far as to commit taxpayer dollars to the cause, forming a new unit to mine Facebook, Twitter and MySpace data in an effort to step up online policing. The unit will pay particular attention to potential juvenile offenders and child predators who announce their plans or illicit gains on their profile pages.
Monitoring social media sites is nothing new, although law enforcement agencies’ willingness to publicize and subsidize its surveillance suggests a new attitude toward this type of information gathering. The NYPD unit’s purpose is to monitor “public” information made available through the user’s choice of security settings, which is notably different than requesting a user’s personal information be disclosed by site operators.
Privacy advocates may be unwilling to make that distinction, however, and a valid argument remains regarding the increasingly blurred lines between security and privacy. Concerns are growing about whether social media sites may be used to predict crimes or otherwise infringe upon a person’s private life and rights to express themselves without fear of being implicated in lawful action.
There is no doubt that monitoring these sites can and do prevent or mitigate crime when people use social networking sites to coordinate and plan criminal conduct. The question that remains in its many forms is how far law enforcement may go in the use of social media websites.
US criminal justice organizations are taking notice of Britain’s use of social media websites and other technologies to quell riots that recently gripped London. Again, though, this situation highlighted the difference (in law and effectiveness) between trolling for public information on the Web and actually decrypting peoples’ smartphones and other devices in an attempt to review their personal communications.
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