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Investigating Twitter: Mining social media for intel

What are some social media best practices in the area of crime prevention, investigation, and enforcement?

Twitter is changing the way police agencies do business. Don’t believe me? Look no further than what happened in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing.

With a feverish thirst for information, people flocked to the @Boston_Police Twitter page, which more than doubled its followers overnight — going from 55,000 followers on Monday to more than 117,000 the day after the tragedy.

As outlined in newly-released information from BrightPlanet — a firm which helps “US intelligence agencies fight the War on Terror” through the use of “deep web” intelligence and analytics — police agencies Tweet about everything from traffic and road conditions to recent arrests and wanted suspects.

Not The Thought Police
But Twitter is far more than an online police blotter.

I encourage you to click here to read more results of their recent effort to uncover “exactly how police departments are using Twitter” but in this space, I want to look at information gathering — not information distribution.

Recently in Bahrain, “six Twitter users were jailed for writing remarks undermining the values and traditions of Bahrain’s society towards the king on Twitter,” according to reports.

Fortunately, we’re in America (not Oceania), and despite what some would have people believe, police conduct investigative work according to the Constitution of the United States.

Dallas Police Lieutenant Tony Crawford — who works with the Dallas Fusion Center Homeland Security and Tactical Intelligence Division — says that because social media has become such a good indicator of what individuals are thinking about, those databases can monitored in a way that ensures public safety and also protects individuals’ Constitutional rights.

“The Dallas Police Department ...supports freedom of speech and individual’s rights to responsibly post on social media,” Lieutenant Crawford told me.

“However, some of those comments indicate a deeper and more sinister motivation. It is these comments that help the Dallas Police Department to form good intelligence in order to protect our citizens and special events.”

Training is the Key
Crawford and his team are not an anomaly. According to a survey conducted last year by the IACP Center for Social Media, the most common social media use by survey respondents was for criminal investigations, with nearly 75 percent of agencies reporting that “social media has helped solve crimes in their jurisdiction.”

So, how are they doing it?

For starters, there are automated data mining technologies on the market that enable law enforcers to do 24/7/365 monitoring of things like Twitter. You can set up searches to help alert you to crimes taking place in near-real time simply by looking for “hash tags” such as:


Those automated systems are great, but the human brain — when properly trained — can take such capabilities to entirely new levels. This, Crawford said, is where training becomes essential.

“Training is vital to using social media for intelligence planning,” Crawford said, adding that the detectives from the Dallas Fusion Center are sent to training seminars around the country.

Crawford said that not only do they get training on how to use social media data mining tools, but also on the proper and legal way in which to gather and maintain information these tools provide.

“Law enforcement experience provides our detectives with a basic understanding of words and phrases that indicate possible criminal activity. Large gatherings aimed a societal issues are particularly easy to plan for since social media is the prime communications avenue for these large events,” Crawford said.

For example, Crawford and the team at the Dallas Fusion Center can modify what they’re looking for (or at) as planned special events grow nearer. We’re really just talking about doing good, solid police work, regardless of whether you’re on the street on in the “virtual space” of social media.

Just as local police and city planners will take a variety of precautions leading up to a big event in the real world, certain precautions can be taken in cyberspace.

“Training,” Crawford concluded, “is the key.”

Doug Wyllie writes police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug was a co-founder of the Policing Matters podcast and a longtime co-host of the program.