Friday, September 14, 2012

Homeland Security Today: Social Media Analytics Can Aid Law Enforcement, First Responders in Civil Unrest, Disasters, Investigations

Homeland Security Today: Social Media Analytics Can Aid Law Enforcement, First Responders in Civil Unrest, Disasters, Investigations

With the proliferation of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and other social media websites, law enforcement agencies and first responders would do well to acclimate themselves to these tools.  Why? Because such websites can provide crucial information during civil unrest, natural disasters and other disturbances. Gaining real-time information can make a tremendous impact on response times and strategies, and rendering the necessary assistance. It’s for these very reasons that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) developed a specialized social media monitoring and data-mining capability – especially for responding to disaster and crisis events.

Similarly, the Department of Defense and US Intelligence Community have deployed similar technologies to meet their unique needs.

Recent tornadoes in Florida, NATO Summit civil unrest and other events give one pause about how such tools can be used. The ability to monitor Twitter hash tags or YouTube videos about unfolding events before first responders’ very eyes can help them gain valuable insights prior to actually having feet on the ground – as DHS learned from its social media monitoring program to assist US first responders and others who assisted Haitians during the horrific Jan. 2010 earthquake that devastated the tiny island nation.

A tornado, for example, results in chaos, potential loss of life and property - it’s imperative that emergency operations centers (EOCs) gain accurate information – and data, from the scene – even if from unofficial resources like the public.

As is the case with traditional investigations, police do not rely on one source of social media information to make an informed decision on a course of action. Officials listen for, and monitor, multiple posts to confirm events. Real-time information gives public officials the level of situational awareness that is important to decision-making processes.

It’s interesting to note that social media technology has been used in business for some time, but that it’s still relatively new territory to law enforcement and EOC personnel. But they can’t remain in the dark about the vital role that it’s able to play for much longer.

A recent story in USA Today about the State of Kansas, for example, noted that gangs there are using social media for recruiting and organizing members and sharing information. Law enforcement needs to identify these organizations so they can stay abreast of developments. One way to do so is with social media analytics – technology that allows users to quickly analyze social media content to pinpoint relevant patterns and information.

As I pointed out, DHS, Defense Department and some law enforcement departments have already deployed these capabilities.

But it’s not just about gleaning information … it’s also about pushing information to the public so people can be aware of dangerous situations so that they can protect loved ones until situations are brought under control. If there is a shooter on a school campus, for example, it’s not only the media’s responsibility to inform, but also law enforcement and EOCs to “push” out alerts through social media and special emergency mass notification communication systems.

Instances of violent circumstances bring up another point. Social media analysis tools can be used by law enforcement when threats have been made against public figures and other people.

Take the case of Jared Loughner, the man who shot Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in January 2011. His anti-government rants had been posted on a variety of social media sites prior to his attempt to assassinate Giffords. It consequently behooves law enforcement - with the goal of interdiction - to make full use of social media and sentiment analysis to assess social media posts like Loughner’s that make threats against life or property.

I am not advocating monitoring people’s private information. For private social media content, police need to follow the legal process of preparing an affidavit outlining probable cause that is presented to a judge, who, after thorough review, will or will not grant a search warrant.

Regardless of the importance of this private information to a criminal investigation, law enforcement must adhere to due process as dictated by state and federal law - and mandated by the US Constitution. However, law enforcement or private security firms can monitor public content to help identify individuals who pose potential threats. And this allows law enforcement to prevent or disrupt a violent act and/or provide evidence in a criminal case.

Sentiment analysis technology is readily available that can analyze thousands of social media postings in real-time using keywords like “anti-government” and return negative sentiment scores – the purpose of which, once again, is to try to identify individuals who pose real threats and thus provide law enforcement valuable information that may help prevent impending criminal activity.

While it’s certainly clear that some seemingly violent social media postings are nothing more than the rants of people just blowing off steam, it’s equally as clear that by analyzing social media posts and other publicly accessible information over a period of time that police can narrow, say, 100,000 posts classified as “critical” to 5,000 that truly represent real threats and necessitate further analysis. The analysts can assess whether an individual’s sentiment changes over a period of time, either reducing or increasing law enforcement’s concern that the person is indeed a serious threat.

When “rants” reach an overtly threatening level like a person’s declared desire to “hunt down a judge,” then the system can generate warnings to law enforcement analysts – even to Secret Service agents in the case of federal officials and private security agencies in the case of executives, entertainers, actors, etc.

Such notifications would be sent to requisite organizations for further evaluation. Another advantage of such a system is that social media monitoring technology can keep track of events without human interaction.

Still, we have to keep in mind that no action can take place without a thorough investigation to determine whether a potential threat is valid. If a threat threshold is reached, the responsible agency must determine the validity and seriousness of threat before appropriate legal action can be taken - legal action that could prevent a sinister act from occurring.

And it doesn’t necessarily mean an arrest, incarceration and trial of a person deemed a serious potential violent offender. It could mean that a person may be suffering from a mental illness and that law enforcement can aide in securing necessary help for the individual before he or she actually crosses a criminal line.

Does the person have a violent background? Police may be able to diffuse the situation by simply talking to the person and letting the individual know that someone is listening to them.

The goal of all of this should never be to stifle free speech, but rather the disruption of violent actions before they occur. Social media analytics technology is available to help law enforcement to disrupt such violence acts.
It’s now up to law enforcement and first responders to make the most of the “new media.”

Lieutenant Dale Peet is a 23-year veteran of the Michigan State Police who retired as commander of the Michigan Intelligence Operations Center, Michigan’s largest and primary homeland security fusion center. Peet now serves as Senior Industry Consultant at SAS. He can be reached at dale.peet(at)


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