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Police referring to Twitter as the "new police scanner"

by Adan Salazar

May 22, 2014

Image Credits: Martin Addison,

Image Credits: Martin Addison,

Police are increasingly turning to social media to help solve crimes and nab bad guys, but some officers are urging departments to utilize services like Twitter as tools for pre-crime prevention.

In a presentation titled, “Leveraging Social Media to Provide Actionable Intelligence,” given at a GovSec conference in Washington DC last week, two officers described how they are taking the guesswork out of policing by relying on social media, namely Twitter,to investigate and “prevent” crimes.

“One quote out there is that Twitter is seen as the new police scanner,” said Jamie Roush, Crime Analysis Unit Manager for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.

The lecture’s presentation materials contain statistics noting that “3 out of every 4 law enforcement professionals are relying on social media for crime investigation and prevention,” but retired police chief Rick Graham says still not enough effort is being undertaken in the area of “pre-emptive strikes.”

“We do a pretty good job in law enforcement solving crimes after the fact,” Graham said, according to Government Security News. “But what about the proactive — the preemptive strike. Do you have 150 officers to infiltrate different locations and have the intel analyzed after the fact. I don’t think so.”

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Former Sheriff Graham also asserted that officers who snoop through Twitter feeds should have no reservations about violating people’s privacy, as all information is uploaded voluntarily by users. We’re “not sabotaging people’s privacy,” he said, adding, “They’re throwing it out there.”

Statistics also showed that courts favor social media evidence when provided as justification for probable cause, with up to 87% of search warrants holding up in court.

Roush also recommended police leverage social media not only to field intelligence from citizens, but to also develop “marketing” strategies to put forth a more likable public persona, similar to how companies wage online media campaigns, stating that “in law enforcement we must do brand marketing as well.”

“Unless law enforcement gets on board…with social media then we are truly missing the boat,” Roush concluded.

Of course, the flip side of the coin is the potential for police to abuse the tools at their disposal, one such example being last year’s discovery that NSA workers were “using secret government surveillance tools to spy on the emails or phone calls of their current or former spouses and lovers,” according to Reuters.

Embarking on the prevention of future crimes also carries the inherent risk for police to misinterpret messages, extrapolate erroneous leads or target enemies of the state, leading to the arrest ofpeople who have committed no crimes, as depicted in Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report.

As evidenced by last year’s arrest of Afghanistan and Iraq war veteran Brandon Raub, there is a slippery slope that follows once authorities begin policing social media. In Raub’s case, he was only making anti-establishment comments on Facebook using colorful metaphors, yet somehow this was enough to earn him forcible incarceration and a trip to the psych ward.

In March, a Twitter user in Saudi Arabia was arrested for expressing opinions critical of the state on charges that he incited protests, mocked the Saudi king and dared voice criticism of police.

But earlier this year, police in the UK demonstrated how “proactive police work” also translates to overzealous policing when they arrested a man for merely making distasteful remarks, claiming he was engaged in “malicious communications,” when all he did was insult someone on Twitter.