Web Surveillance Companies Pitch Their Tools to Police

Detecting suspicious behavior online could get a boost from companies that tout advancements in social media and Internet monitoring.

by / September 4, 2012
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Internet-based intelligence gathering could get a boost from companies that are touting sophisticated software that can analyze vast amounts of data. Police departments are being pitched about various tools that could narrow down their search for criminals online and provide better insight into nefarious Internet practices. Some Web surveillance tools search through not only social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, but also blogs, online forums and chat rooms. This provides deeper insight into someone’s online interactions than simply searching Twitter. for example, for uses of the word “bomb.”

California Watch, a reporting initiative launched by the Center for Investigative Reporting, reported that random keyword searches won’t produce actionable intelligence. "Twitter's, like, 90 percent noise — bots that are producing erroneous or extraneous tweets," Tim Gasper, product manager for Infochimps, a company that seeks to make meaning from large amounts of data, told California Watch. "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."

An example of the Web tools now being marketed is the SAS Institute’s Text Miner, which police can use to single out words and phrases and determine if a word is being used as a noun, verb or adjective.

These tools — that were once used for corporate branding — are raising privacy questions among watchdogs and advocates.

“If it’s not publicly available data, then law enforcement officers must adhere to usual due process,” SAS spokesman Trent Smith wrote in a reply to California Watch. “Also, human investigators should analyze what the technology produces, with no actions taken without a person validating the results.”

Law enforcement has already embraced social media for announcements or emergency notifications, but for preventative law enforcement, social media could have untapped potential. Police in Michigan reportedly used social media to catch a serial burglar who bragged online about racing police on his motorcycle.