Law-enforcement technologyLaw-enforcement agencies eager for Web-surveillance tools

Published 5 September 2012

Private technology firms are pitching software capable of analyzing large swaths of the Internet to local law enforcement looking for ways to stop the next mass shooting or domestic terrorist event before it happens; police departments hope the software will help them detect online information from terrorists, traffickers, pedophiles, and rioters

Police eager for advanced Web surveillance tools // Source:

Private technology firms are pitching software capable of analyzing large swaths of the Internet to local law enforcement looking for ways to stop the next mass shooting or domestic terrorist event before it happens.

Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites use an automated tool to decide what is important and what is not. Now, technology companies are selling the software to police departments to help them capture online information from terrorists, traffickers, pedophiles, and rioters.

Privacy advocates are not happy with the news, as they fear these tools could affect users who happen to be in the wrong space at the wrong time.

In June, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo said almost 400 million tweets are sent across the Web site every day. On Facebook, almost 900 million uses send relationship updates, post photos with family and friends, and produce statuses about awkward encounters at the bank or while walking to work.

Twitter’s, like, 90 percent noise - bots that are producing erroneous or extraneous tweets,” Tim Gasper, product manager for Infochimps, told the Sacramento Bee. “So you’d be scrolling through all of that just to see if anything caught your eye. Obviously, that’s not a very efficient use of people.”

The advancement of technology allows for greater surveillance capabilities, and that has law enforcement agencies eager to acquire their own tools to track people who might be planning or thinking about taking out their frustrations on other citizens.

To some people however, it raises concerns about law enforcement having no clear target in mind as well who or what they want to spy on and why. “I follow lots of people on Twitter that I don’t agree with at all,” Ginger McCall, open government program director for the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) told the Bee. ” … I follow a lot of accounts of people who are potentially breaking various U.S. laws. Does that association necessarily mean that I am?”

SAS Institute Inc. of North Carolina teaches law enforcement that they can analyze huge amounts of data through back channels of Facebook and Twitter, something most people do not know about.

Any data you send out, no matter how small, can be processed for search sites and locations that reveal “patterns of interest” to law enforcement in real time. Using the TextMiner tool owned by SAS Institute, law enforcement can determine if a word or phrase is being used as a noun, adjective or verb.

Unlike their commercial counterparts who monitor the Twitter stream for any mention of a product, law enforcement clients don’t necessarily know what they need to monitor on Twitter,” the institute wrote in a white paper [PDF] earlier this year titled, “Twitter and Facebook Analysis: It’s Not Just for Marketing Anymore.”

With just the name of a suspect, law enforcement can view their followers on Twitter, read Facebook wall posts of the suspect and their friends to determine whether the suspect and the people they are associated with on social network sites are a potential threat.

The company 3i-Mind, based in Switzerland, pitched its product, called OpenMIND, at a law enforcement conference in San Diego last year. OpenMIND “automatically finds suspicious patterns and behaviors” across the Internet. It looks at social networks, but the program also goes through blogs, online forums and chat rooms.

OpenMIND helps analysts to find insights they were not even looking for, about entities they had not previously queried,” boasts the company’s product literature [PDF]. “It also helps to pinpoint specific websites not regularly monitored that may be relevant to research being performed.”

The company also claims that it can analyze text “according to its semantic meaning” and show whether a specific word such as “bomb” is referring to an explosive or a slang term.

The Bee notes that law enforcement officials have embraced using social media to find and stop illegal activity. Police in Michigan used a social media site to nab a serial burglar who bragged online about racing from the cops. The Colorado Office of Emergency Management used twitter for updates on wildfires and the Aurora Police Department tweeted updates following the theatre shooting in July.

One Dallas-area Internet lawyer referred to the Supreme Court’s landmark privacy case known as United States v. Jones, for those complaining of an invasion of privacy by the potential of law enforcement looking at what they post on social Web sites.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued that it may be time to reconsider the assumption that any reasonable expectation of privacy is lost when we hand over personal information to third parties.

This approach is ill suited to the digital age, in which people reveal a great deal of information about themselves to third parties in the course of carrying out mundane tasks,” she wrote [PDF].