Social media is seen by some as a threat to society and to law and order. This view was re-enforced by the use of BlackBerry Messenger in the riots. Peter Ship describes how the reverse is true. Social media is an opportunity for better public protection, but he explains that technology is required to make it effective.
The need for police and other investigative agencies to efficiently process open source intelligence is becoming increasingly clear. The power of social media to motivate mass movements has been demonstrated by the events of the Arab Spring which showed how attitudes expressed over social media can stir entire nations into action.
The riots that broke out in the UK during the Summer of 2011 also demonstrated the power of social media as an influencer of mass action even if this time it was to coordinate and comment on looting, arson and criminal damage rather than to fight for social and political freedom. Social media played a key role in helping to incite the violence and to coordinate the activities of the rioters.
While in the Arab Spring, Facebook was used to organise protests or spread awareness of them. In the UK, BlackBerry Messenger became the rioters’ most powerful weapon, helping them to target, move and attack ‘en masse’. Both events generated large volumes of unstructured data and underlined the need for investigative agencies to deploy solutions capable of extracting insight and value from that data. Effectively, they acted as a wake-up call, highlighting the need for the police to start seeing social media and other forms of digital communications as an opportunity to fight crime rather than simply a tool used by criminals to organise and facilitate it.
At the same time, the situation is further confused, in the UK at least, by the diverse range of views that the public hold about the police’s usage of social media. The fear of Big Brother still persists among the older generation Yet, in reality, the law-abiding public do not need to fear the police’s use of social media.. Indeed, there is a growing expectation from a more social media savvy younger generation that the police should be using social media and the intelligence it can provide to counter crime. Amongst Generation ‘Y’, there is even an increasing willingness to report crime via social media rather than by telephone or face to face. A recent survey carried out by online polling firm, YouGov for SAS found that 15% of 18-24-year-olds said they would use a social media site to contact the police if they witnessed a crime (as opposed to only 1% of the 55-plus age group.
The urgent need to ensure that social media content is continuously monitored and analysed is increasingly understood by the police, as is the need to engage more closely with the public in general and utilise social media to help solve crime. Today growing numbers of personnel within police forces and other investigative agencies are being deployed to monitor social media. Unfortunately, within most agencies, and particularly in law enforcement, the systems in use are basic and the process is too time consuming and resource intensive for agencies to do this effectively. As a result, police sometimes fail to capitalise on the intelligence the approach could potentially provide.
So, how can police forces and investigative agencies process and analyse the large and growing volume of open source information available in order to extract relevant, accurate and timely intelligence which can be used to combat terrorism, crime and other security threats like those outlined above?
What they urgently need is an approach that enables them to sift out relevant information from the deluge of “noise”, identify who is saying what to whom, what the prevailing sentiment is and how it is changing, identify and monitor patterns of influence and ultimately turn this into actionable intelligence. So what’s the best solution for hard-pressed investigative agencies?
Finding a Way Forward
Ultimately, technology has a key role to play here. One of the biggest issues in the open source arena, and in social media in particular, is the large volume and velocity of data available. Rapid processing and analysis of large volumes of open source social media information and dissemination of this information at the right time and place to ensure effective action is taken, helping combat security threats. This could potentially be a key benefit to investigative agencies and other crime-fighting forces in fast-moving dynamic situations like the 2011 riots.
Analytics technology can be key here. Text analytics technologies can now pore over huge amounts of social media information to uncover patterns and analyse content. As most open source intelligence will be in the form of text – or converted into text, the ability of this kind of approach to identify its key meaning, in a way that can then be further analysed and compared to information from other sources, can potentially be crucial.
Social media analytics continuously monitors online data in real time to identify important topics and content categories and build links to understand certain networks of individuals, ensuring analysis is made on the most recent information.
In addition, sentiment analytics can assess and monitor the sentiment of text to flag changing attitudes that may signal a shift from words to action. It may be possible, for example, to pinpoint individuals who are expressing positive, negative or neutral opinions about a topic. It can also be used to identify what the general mood is, how it is changing and when individuals or groups are becoming more aggressive. Allowing the technology to do the monitoring frees resources to intervene when an increased threat is identified. This type of capability will enable the professionals to cut through the ‘noise’ within social media and focus in on the data that could provide the most valuable intelligence. In particular, the use of sentiment analytics combined with advanced risk modelling techniques enables those individuals that pose the greatest potential threat to be identified.
Making Sense of the Data Mountain
Ultimately, in times of financial austerity, the police don’t have the luxury of just increasing their resources to ensure social media is being appropriately monitored for threats. Instead, they need to make best use of their skills in frontline roles on the street rather than being bogged down sifting through information. Most importantly they need to use technology wisely to extract actionable intelligence from mass social media information.
The police will only be able to bring the current profusion of data under control through the use of analytics and other related technologies, enabling them to action intelligence and use it to help prevent a range of crimes from social disorder to terrorism-related offences and thereby helping to better protect the public.
Peter Ship is a Senior Industry Consultant with SAS.