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Social Policing: Fighting Crime with Facebook and Instagram

by Jane Susskind, published
Credit: NYPD Facebook Page


They say a picture's worth a thousand words, but for the NYPD, it could be worth a lot more if used to identify and track known criminals. Using photos from popular social networks like Instagram and Facebook, the NYPD recently employed a new type of social policing, creating a highly advanced Facial Recognition Unit to attach a name to a face. Share the news: Tweet

The technology analyzes specific features, such as the size and shape of the eyes, nose, and cheek bones. While still in its infancy, it has already been successfully employed to solve cases across New York.

“We are solving tons of cases now thanks to the technology,” a veteran police official told DNAinfo reporter Murray Weiss. “We get a nickname of someone and track him on social media and now we have a photo and then hopefully a name."

“It's really changing the way we operate,” he added.

A positive match, however, does not constitute probable cause and does not grant police officers the right to arrest a suspected criminal. Police officers are still required to grant suspects due process and images obtained on Facebook act as "roadmaps" to present to victims.

For example, the NYPD recently used the Facial Recognition Unit to identify a suspect in a string of car robberies using an image captured from a camera on the dashboard of a livery car. The image was shipped to Police Headquarters and scanned through the database of known criminals. It wasn't long before the suspect was identified.

The incorporation of this technology represents a broader shift towards social policing. Since the beginning of 2013, there has been a steady increase in the number of police departments using social media to accompany their on-the-ground efforts.

A nationwide survey, conducted by PoliceOne and LexisNexis Risk Solutions, indicates that half of all respondents use social media at least once a week, while two-thirds of those surveyed believe social media helps solve crimes more quickly

Furthermore, research suggests that 4 out of 5 officers use social media for investigative purposes, with the majority turning to Facebook for investigative assistant. Tweet stat: Tweet

Twitter also presents an opportunity for police departments and law enforcement agencies to better communicate with the public and help prevent the spread of crime. Just last week, the FBI joined police departments from around the world to participate in the first global tweet-a-thon.

In an effort to increase awareness and remove the veil that often times obstructs the public's view of policing tasks, the tweet-a-thon showcased what a day in the life of a police officer entails. Police departments from around the world, including @NYorksPolice, @CalgaryPolice, and the @FBIPressOffice, shared tips, updates, and more. Tweet it: Tweet

Some privacy advocates, however, are not convinced that police intrusion into our social media accounts is justified, given the risk of unwarranted surveillance.

Senator Al Franken expressed his qualms with the introduction of facial recognition technology in his opening statement to "What Facial Recognition Technology Means for Privacy and Civil Liberties:"

"Your face is a conduit to an incredible amount of information about you. And facial recognition technology can allow others to access all of that information from a distance, without your knowledge and in about as much time as it takes to snap a photo."

He continued:

“I fear that the FBI pilot could be abused to not only identify protesters at political events and rallies, but to target them for selective jailing and prosecution, stifling their First Amendment rights."

Because of the novelty of the technology's application to social policing, the implications on privacy and civil liberties remain unclear.

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