(TNS) -- In addition to the massive police presence at the Coors Events Center during Wednesday's Republican presidential debate, a select group of law enforcement officials from across Boulder County and the Front Range were tucked away nearby, monitoring the Internet for virtual threats to the safety of the candidates and audience members.
The new, so-called cyberteam formed earlier this fall when the University of Colorado began preparing to host the Dalai Lama, who later cancelled, and 14 presidential hopefuls in the same month.
The university is also preparing for a busy campaign season and expects to see its share of candidate visits and events in the coming months.
"We really started thinking, 'Wow, we're going to have some high-profile people here on campus, it will probably continue through the election cycle and it's probably time to start paying attention to the cyberdomain,'" said Stu Pike, director of special events and emergency management at CU.
After Chris Harper Mercer, 26, opened fire Oct. 1 on Oregon's Umpqua Community College, killing nine people and himself and injuring nine others, police discovered that he had posted "hateful writings" online.
Other criminals, too, have posted warning messages or hinted at potentially violent acts on social media. Because of that, it was time for law enforcement agencies within the county to learn the ins and outs of the various social media platforms used today, Pike said.
The team, which includes members from the Boulder and Longmont police departments, Boulder County Sheriff's Office and Boulder County District Attorney's Office, has been testing its skills at CU home football games this season and was active during Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign stop on campus Oct. 10.
"For quite some time, from an emergency management point of view, we've been consistently hearing that the people who perpetrate these kinds of acts, they post stuff," said Pike. "They post manifestos or some kind of warning on the Internet and when people go back and look after the fact, they're like 'Oh my gosh, why didn't anybody see this kind of thing?'"
The team looks only at publicly accessible websites and social media channels and is "totally cognizant" of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure, said Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle.
Pelle added that social media is a useful way for police to understand the movement of crowds and the tenor of conversation about an event.
"They're not monitoring or trying to get into anybody's private account," Pelle said. "They couldn't do that or wouldn't do that without a search warrant signed by a judge."
The group looks primarily at key words that may tie in to the event, like "Buffs" for football games or "CNBC" for the debate. If something suspicious catches an investigator's eye, he or she "drills down" to determine the credibility of the statement, Pike said.
"That's the challenge we face because it is the wild, wild west out there right now," said CU's Pike. "There are no rules and people seem to take on a different persona sometimes and they'll say things out there that they'd probably never say to you or me, face to face."
So far the group has had two "hits," Pike said. One was a threat made by an individual that the group determined lived in another state. They were able to pass along information to the local law enforcement agencies near the individual. He declined to specify the context in which the threat was made.
The team also "inadvertently" stumbled across child pornography activity that officials were able to pursue, Pike said.
Though it is still early, already the team is proving to be a valuable counterpart to the visible police presence at events in the county.
"The reality is, the departments here in this county are very proficient in the physical domain, they are very good at what they do," Pike said. "But the cyberdomain, we had never messed with and yet it is becoming more and more important with every passing day in terms of how people communicate, how they share ideas, how they formulate their actions.
"It's a much more dynamic environment and we realized we need to start understanding how to operate in that environment as well."
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