What the Recent Weeks tell us about Social Media and Law Enforcement

There has been much controversy lately about how law enforcement agencies are using (or preventing the use of) social media in order to target criminals and avoid social unrest.

Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have become central to the way many of us keep in touch, organize events, and generally communicate. Nothing reflects this more clearly than the way law enforcement agencies are struggling to evolve with these platforms; social media is now simultaneously seen as a danger, a tool, and a right.

The London Riots:

The Riots are an appropriate illustration of how social media can be used for nefarious purposes, and how the government can respond to this misuse in one of two ways. Access to the networks can be denied, or tracked. If criminals are able to use these tools to incite violence and larceny, law enforcement can use the same tools to track these criminals and predict their next moves.

The question becomes: if you are aware that a group of people are using the tool to orchestrate mass chaos and unrest, should you prepare yourself for these events, and track them to the best of your ability- or should you simply remove the tool?

(Flickr Image Courtesy of Stuart Bannocks)

When the U.K. discussed doing this, citizens were outraged. David Cameron stated, “Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill.” He continued, “[it could] be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.” Does the government have the right to do this? To censor the populace, to take away their means to communicate and therefore violate their rights, would seem the actions of a totalitarian regime. To put the icing on the Prime Minister’s PR nightmare, China applauded this strategy of measured censorship. As one  journalist bluntly wrote, “You know your Censorship plans are too strict when China praises you for it.”

Meanwhile, U.K. Police cooperated with citizens, using social media to find, identify, and humiliate looters. Several young participants in the riots, or those planning similar events, have already been convicted of crimes. Two men were sentenced to four years in prison for attempting to use Facebook to foment disorder during the riots.

“The sentences passed down today recognize how technology can be abused to incite criminal activity, and send a strong message to potential troublemakers about the extent to which ordinary people value safety and order in their lives and their communities,” Assistant Chief Constable Phil Thompson warned. “Anyone who seeks to undermine that will face the full force of the law” (Block Quote courtesy of Mashable).

*Update: Later in the month the U.K. government publicly stated that it was no longer considering cutting off access to networking platforms during emergencies.


Luckily, since Americans consider free speech an integral part of our country’s belief system, such a thing would never happen here… right? Wrong. Last week BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) in San Francisco, turned off all cell service in its stations for three hours. Commuters were unable to text, contact friends, or even call 911.

Why did they do this? On July 11 a protest against a BART police shooting of a homeless man turned violent. So, when BART expected another such gathering several weeks later, it feared similar chaos- and responded by turning off all phone service. Activists, never materialized, but the actions of the agency were met with strong opposition from the public and an FCC investigation. When yet another protest occurred several days ago, BART simply rode it out, rather than provoking public wrath again.

New York:

(Flickr Image courtesy of sbamueller)

The New York Police Department has established a new unit to track criminal activity on social media sites. According to the New York Daily News, criminals often plan, then brag about, crimes on sites like Facebook and Twitter. The NYPD has noted this and built a team in response. Based upon this news, Engadget decided to create the most natural looking photoshop ever.

As the role of social media grows and evolves, so will police methods to monitor and control this role. What do you think, is our ability to communicate on social platforms and through cell phones a privilege, or a right? How will law enforcement work with and against these platforms?

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One Response to What the Recent Weeks tell us about Social Media and Law Enforcement

  1. rabinnh says:

    Our opinion of whether “it is a privilege or right” is irrelevant. As the Supreme Court has upheld time and again, Freedom of Speech is a right. The government can legally suppress some individual rights under martial law, which is the suspension of civilian authority and the imposition of military authority. Most legal scholars believe that only Congress can declare martial law in the case of a national emergency. That has not happened, and therefore the interruption of “speech” was unconstitutional and illegal. I note that BART did not cite and statute or legal authority for their actions.

    As 1 wag note “any time an act of suppression garners the approval of China, you know that you are wrong”.

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