Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

Policing with social media?

Published on 28 October 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

Last Monday, in Philadelphia, about 13 000 representatives of law enforcement agencies from around the world met at the 120th Annual International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference and Law Enforcement Education and Technology Exhibition.

Kenneth Lipp, a journalist covering the proceedings has been quoted quite a bit in the last week. I came across him on the award-winning political website Truthdig! where he reports that police authorities may soon have control over what’s posted on social media sites. We’ve all seen how Twitter and Facebook have been used to orchestate demonstrations and report on what’s happening on the ground, but if Lipp is right, it seems that police are looking at ways to obstruct these protests. Could this amount to censorship?

‘A high-ranking official from the Chicago Police Department told attendees at a law enforcement conference on Monday that his agency has been working with a security chief at Facebook to block certain users from the site “if it is determined they have posted what is deemed criminal content,” reports Kenneth Lipp.

Lipp also pointed to an alarming statistic regarding the relationship between social media and crime assessment: “95.9 percent of law enforcement agencies use social media, 86.1 percent for investigative purposes”.’

Of particular concern is talk about geofencing software. I had go to digging to find out what this is and am now suitably worried about the possibilities it offers. One example of geofencing software I came across is iHound, which ‘tells your larger social network what you are doing, when you are doing it, without even having to take your phone out of your pocket’. Why would I want to do this, I ask myself? And if I am doing it, can I really be all that surprised that the police might take note?

If it is true, and if the police are joining forces with social media giants like Facebook and Twitter to elimate the right to free assembly, what next?

In an article on the Governing website, John Buntin writes about how social media is transforming the way the Chicago Police Department fights gang violence. I’m strangely okay with that (but should I be or have I taken the first step down a slippery slope?). Using network analysis tools to identify ‘persons of interest’ when said persons might be murderers, drug lords, and gangbangers doesn’t bother me (but perhaps it should). Using said same technology to prevent free assembly… mmmmm… I will need to think some more on this one.

Over on the PrivacySOS blog, Lipp’s comments received this reaction:

‘Is Facebook really working with the police to create a kill switch to stop activists from using the website to mobilize support for political demonstrations? How would such a switch function? Would Facebook, which reportedly hands over our data to government agencies at no cost, block users from posting on its website simply because the police ask them to?’

Nothing like some self-examination to kick off the week.



Subscribe to Diplo's Blog