The New York Police Department announced it will form a new unit to search social media as part of its law enforcement efforts, responding to the criminals’ growing use of these sites to plan and celebrate illegal exploits.
Assistant Commissioner Kevin O’Connor is in charge of an NYPD unit created specifically to comb social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and BlackBerry messenger for information on planned crimes and their perpetrators.
Law enforcement has linked social media to increasing incidents of flash robs in the U.S. and the recent looting and rioting in London. Public safety agencies are consequently looking to step up their game in order to better protect citizens against these trends.
In the London riots in particular, law enforcement suspects the looters relied heavily on BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) to coordinate and plan their riotous spree. Police there are working with BBM maker Research In Motion to decipher the messages and identify those responsible for burning and pillaging London stores.
The mobility, economy and encryption BBM and other smartphone messaging services provide make it hard for law enforcement to anticipate criminal activity, especially if they aren’t as familiar with this technology as are the offenders. The NYPD unit intends to educate officers about such technology to improve this handicap.
For social media providers and smartphone makers, the criminal element’s preference for their products is putting them in the sticky position of determining how to assist law enforcement without betraying lawful customers’ privacy.
In addition to sniffing out the first signs of a troublesome house party, flash robs, gang clashes, and other mayhem, the NYPD’s unit will scour sites for evidence of already-committed crimes. Many youthful offenders post information, pictures and videos of their criminal misdeeds on social media sites after the fact, either not knowing or not caring how that information can be used against them.
Also, disputes that begin on Facebook, Twitter or via text messaging sometimes end up in a real-world crime, and social media can provide evidence of ongoing family feuds and other disagreements. That was the case this past spring in New York, when those investigating a stabbing between two friends found evidence they had previously argued on Facebook over $20 in diapers.
The new unit will operate under the Community Affairs Bureau and also coordinate several of the city’s outreach programs.