Saturday, March 22, 2014

How police are embracing social media as a crime-fighting tool

With the widespread popularity of social media, it’s becoming too easy to leave evidence of where we’ve been and what we do all over the Internet–and sometimes, that information can come back to haunt us.

As of September 2013, 73 percent of online adults use social networking sites of some kind. Individuals increasingly seem to be becoming more comfortable about posting details about their private lives that are broadcasted online for the world to see. This can mean bad news for those who break the law, as police departments around the world are increasingly turning to Facebook and other social media sites to catch criminal offenders.

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A 2012 survey of 1,200 Federal, State, and Local Law Enforcement Professionals found that four out of five agencies said they use social media for investigations and that 67 percent believe social media helps solve crimes more quickly. The survey also found that Facebook and YouTube are the most popular social networks for law enforcement use.

Police are using YouTube to spread surveillance videos and authorities can even use Twitter to help them predict crime rates. In Pennsylvania, one police department used Pinterest to create a gallery of mugshots, which led to a 57 percent increase in arrests.

Sometimes, police don’t have to look hard on social media sites to catch criminals. One burglar in Florida who broke into a car dealership dropped his license on the floor of the dealership, then posted a photo on Facebook of him holding one of the car keys he had just stolen. In Pennsylvania, another man shared a wanted photo of himself on Facebook and taunted police for not being able to find him. Authorities arrested him less than two hours later.

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Facebook is just one site that many law enforcement officials are using to gather evidence in order to solve crimes. Sharing posts on Facebook is just one way police can spread information about offenders. Police look at public information supplied on the site and sometimes create fake online identities to befriend suspects and view their private information. They can also request “private information directly from social networks with subpoenas or warrants, or make an emergency request for user information if they think there's an imminent threat of danger.”

Although there has been an increase in public online information, police might not always be resorting to correct practices in order to catch criminals on social media. Last year, the Justice Department released a social media guide that “explicitly tells officers to create fake Facebook profiles,” even though Facebook bans the practice.

In 2012, Facebook bought, an Israeli startup company that had developed accurate facial recognition software in photos that were uploaded from online and mobile applications. Now, Facebook researchers are working on facial recognition software called DeepFace.

Facebook’s DeepFace algorithms can detect faces in photos with up to 97.25% accuracy, regardless of lighting conditions or angles, making the facial recognition software as nearly accurate as a human’s.

DeepFace technology uses artificial intelligence known as “deep learning” The AI software uses networks of simulated neurons to learn to recognize patterns in large amounts of data. It works by using a 3D model of an average human being, in which the software positions the face to look forward. Then, it creates a simulated neural network to work out a numerical description of the face to determine if it is similar to another from a different image.

Eventually, Facebook plans to use DeepFace to better identify faces for people to tag in the photos you upload to the site. DeepFace algorithms have also “been successfully tested for facial verification within YouTube videos, but this was challenging because the imagery was not as sharp compared to photos.”

Facebook’s current facial recognition software analyzes “the distance between an individual's eyes and nose in both profile pictures and already tagged images.” It is now only a matter of time before Facebook will get better at detecting faces because of these advances in “deep learning” technology and artificial intelligence.

DeepFace is just a research project for now, but the implications for this technology in the future are endless, as law enforcement officials might be able to better identify and catch criminals in photos and videos posted online. With the ability to potentially identify and track people everywhere, new questions and concerns about privacy are sure to arise from the use of this software.

With these advances in technology, it is possible that in the near future, “you could see someone on the street, point your iPhone at [them], and pull up a list of possible identity matches within seconds.” For now, as far as law enforcement is concerned, if it’s on the Internet–it’s fair game. 

So as always, the lesson here is to be careful about what you post on social media sites, or you may face legal consequences.

This was originally posted at the Eagle Strategies blog.

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