Monday, August 9, 2010

Boston Police Use Twitter to Catch Bad Guys

 From Erik Sass at MediaPost

A lot has been written about the potential for social media to enable crime, but what about going in the other direction? It turns out the real story may be social media's crime-fighting capabilities, especially as it merges with mobile devices, allowing users to alert police and the general public to crimes as they happen. 

Last Friday brought the arrest of Lawrence Maguire, 59, who was charged with indecent exposure on the Boston T Red Line train, thanks to a tweet from another passenger who took a photo and posted it to Twitter under the MBTA hashtag with his mobile device. 

But the Boston flasher story also highlights the need for publicity to overcome institutional inertia in law enforcement organizations: Maguire wasn't arrested until the Boston Herald ran a front-page story about the passenger's photo tweet. Once prodded into action, however, the MBTA's Transit Police showed a genuine commitment to using social media, creating an official Twitter homepage to serve as a public tip line. The transit cops are also creating a system which will allow riders to send tips (and photos) via text messages directly to the authorities. 

The Herald quoted Transit Police Deputy Chief Joseph O'Connor: "We know that there's a certain demographic of people who are communicating through text messaging and social media... We want people to communicate in whatever means they feel comfortable." 

While a photo snapped with a mobile device may not be sufficient to identify miscreants, they can be cross-referenced with images from approximately 700 security cameras covering the MBTA's train stations, trolleys, buses, and garages. 

It's hard to argue with the idea of ordinary citizens helping apprehend criminals, but something about that last detail sets off the "creepy" alarm. Americans have always been ambivalent about surveillance technology, torn between its value as a crime-fighting tool and their fear it will be used to pry into their own privacy. Does it make it more creepy or less creepy when private citizens become part of the surveillance system -- when the public is in effect co-opted to monitor itself?