Facebook fights crime, one status update at a time

Technology | Social media site monitors users' profiles to predict criminal activity, and gives the data to police
by Whitney Davis
Posted 4/11/13, 02:30 pm

It’s no secret that police use Facebook and other social networking websites to solve crime. A quick search of recent media reports unearths numerous, often humorous, stories of criminals caught because they publicly confessed their misdeeds in a status update—some even provide photo evidence through Instagram. Just a few weeks ago, 18-year-old Jacob Cox-Brown of Astoria, Ore., was arrested after posting about driving drunk. Cox-Brown slammed into two cars and fled the scene, leaving a few pieces from his car behind. When he got home, he just had to tell his few hundred Facebook friends about the incident. 

"Drivin drunk... classic ;) but to whoever's vehicle i hit i am sorry. :P," the status read. Someone who saw the post quickly alerted police and within a few hours, officers arrived at Cox-Brown’s house to examine the damaged car parked out front. 

But police are starting to use social media sites for more than simply catching the bad guy. Some law enforcement agencies are trying to predict crime before it actually takes place. If that level of technology sounds like something straight out of a cheesy sci-fi flick, that’s because it is. The 2002 film Minority Report, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise, told the story of a future society where crime is predicted with 100 percent accuracy and the future perpetrator can be arrested before committing any crime. 

While the technology used today is not even close to that level of sophistication, it is arguably a step in that direction. And like the film, the new technique raises questions about privacy rights, civil liberties, and criminal procedure.

Facebook uses algorithms and historical data to predict which of its users might commit crimes, mostly sex-related offenses, using its services. The data Facebook collects and stores includes anything users post on their pages—status updates, locations, products or people users “like.” Even photos and videos users upload can be stored and later put through facial recognition software. Police departments from Los Angeles to the U.K. are using the technology to keep a more active police presence in predicted trouble spots, or to keep an eye on a potential criminal. If Facebook's analysts spot potentially illegal activity, like an older man arranging to meet a young girl, they report it to the police.

Dave Bourgeois, associate professor of Information Systems at Biola University, explained that data mining is a profitable new area of business that goes by the term “big data.” Essentially, anything that an internet user does online, from searching on Google to buying a product on Amazon, watching a video or making a payment, can be stored and saved forever in a database. Until recently, it was too expensive to store all of that raw data, but with advances in technology it’s now feasible for companies to store the raw data and then use it later to fix a problem or effectively market to their customers. 

Law enforcement agencies themselves cannot monitor all of the data—but they can buy it from companies that already do the monitoring anyway. 

“We freely give up information as consumers,” Bourgeois said. “Law enforcement has really enjoyed the ability to get information from private agencies to avoid taking days and weeks getting warrants for that same information. They get information through commerce, and at least in America the public seems pretty open to data collection.”

Millennials, who have grown up in age where being constantly plugged in and monitored is normal, don’t see much of a problem with it—Bourgeois pointed out that the current generation is used to not keeping their lives private. But the possibility of monitoring online activity based on the possibility someone might commit a crime sometime in the future adds a whole new level of philosophical and moral difficulties to an already complex question.

Brad Jacob, associate professor at Regent University School of Law, says the primary question that needs to be asked is what the police are allowed to do with the information once it’s determined that a crime might be committed. If police use it to convince a judge to issue a warrant, the standards for probable cause need to be the same used for any other evidence, Jacob said. The problem is, the law hasn’t caught up to available technology, and the courts have only recently started determining what is private information online and what is not. Jacob said he would advise people to put nothing online, even privately, unless it’s OK for others to see it. 

“If this technology is used with respect to individual rights, it could be a really useful tool,” he said, as long as police follow the proper procedures for obtaining a warrant and demonstrating probable cause.

Along with the diminution of privacy, Americans are increasingly more concerned about security than personal liberty. That attitude could give law enforcement agencies more latitude to stretch the boundaries of individual rights.

“People are wiling to give up privacy for security,” Bourgeois said. “At what cost? I don’t think people realize what they are giving up for more security. I really truly think there will be a day when we get sick of it and then we will demand change. I don't know if we will get it at that point though.”

Whitney Davis

Whitney Davis is a native of Asheville, N.C. She is taking a semester off from Covenant College, where she plans to graduate next year.

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