Social Media in Public Security: Finding a Way Forward
Peter Ship, Senior Industry Consultant at SAS looks at how social media can best be used in the fight against crime.
Media Coverage: Publication: Policing Today
Today, there is a growing pressure on both national security and law enforcement agencies to optimise the way they are using social media in the battle against crime. High profile events over the past few years have highlighted the ability of mass protest movements and groups of rioters to use social media proactively to co-ordinate their activities.
Nowhere was this phenomenon more pronounced than in The Arab Spring which began in December 2010 in Tunisia and sparked revolutions in a host of countries across the Middle East which are still ongoing today. Social media proved a driving force behind these revolutions and had a key role to play in stirring entire nations to action.
The riots that broke out in the UK during Summer 2011 also clearly demonstrated the power of social media as an influencer of mass action, even if this time it was to comment on looting, arson and criminal damage rather than to fight for social and political freedom. Social media played a key role in helping to incite the violence and to coordinate the activities of the rioters. While in the Arab Spring, Facebook was used to organise protests or spread awareness of them, in the UK, it was used to comment on the ongoing criminality.
BlackBerry Messenger became the rioters’ most powerful weapon, helping them to target, move and attack ‘en masse’. Both events generated large volumes of unstructured data and underlined the opportunity for investigative agencies to deploy solutions capable of extracting insight and value from that data. Indeed these events have acted as a wake-up call to the benefits of using social media and other forms of digital communications to prevent and solve crime, rather than simply a tool used by criminals to carry it out.
At the same time, the situation is further confused by the diverse range of views that the public hold about the police’s usage of social media today, right through from the fear of Big Brother that still persists in older generations through to a growing expectation from a more social media savvy younger generation that the police should be using social media and the intelligence it can provide to counter crime.
In reality, the law-abiding public do not need to fear the police use of social media. There is so much data available that tools such as sentiment analysis are run across vast amounts of data with officers only looking at data matching specific criteria.
The urgent need to address the way criminals use social media and ensure that content is continuously monitored and analysed is increasingly understood by the police as is the need to engage more closely with the public in general using social media to help solve crime.
Today growing numbers of personnel within police forces and other investigative agencies worldwide are being deployed to monitor social media. Unfortunately, within most agencies, and particularly in law enforcement, the systems in use are basic and as a result police sometimes fail to capitalise on the intelligence it could potentially provide.
So, what is the solution? Ultimately, technology has a key role to play here. Analytics technology can help with these processes. Text analytics technologies can now pore over huge amounts of social media information to uncover patterns and analyse content. Social media analytics can continuously monitor online data to identify important topics and content categories and build links to understand certain networks of individuals.
In addition, sentiment analytics can assess and monitor the sentiment of text to flag changing attitudes that may signal a shift from words to action. Allowing the technology to do the monitoring frees resources to intervene when an increased threat is identified. This type of capability will enable the professionals to identify the ‘noise’ within social media and focus on the data that could provide valuable intelligence. In particular, the use of sentiment analytics combined with advanced risk modelling techniques enables those individuals that pose the greatest potential threat to be identified.
Making Sense of the Data Mountain
Ultimately, in times of financial austerity, the Police don’t have the luxury of just increasing their resources to ensure social media is being appropriately monitored for threats. They need to use existing resources more smartly and free them up to act on intelligence – not be bogged down by sifting through information. Most importantly they need to use technology wisely to extract actionable intelligence from mass social media data.
The police will only be able to bring the current profusion of data under control through the use of analytics, enabling them to action intelligence and use it to help prevent a range of crimes from paedophilia to social disorder and gang-related offences, thereby helping to better protect the public.