NYC police form social media unit to track criminals

Days after London erupted in riots partially blamed on social media, the New York City Police Department has formed a special unit to track people who announce criminal plans or brag about crimes on Twitter, MySpace and Facebook, according to the New York Daily News.

The new juvenile justice unit “will mine social media, looking for info about troublesome house parties, gang showdowns and other potential mayhem,” the newspaper said in an Aug. 10 article.

Riots began in Tottenham in North London and spread to several cities in recent days, and rioters and gang members were reported to be using Twitter and the Blackberry messaging service to coordinate targets for looting and rioting and to warn of police locations.


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The Blackberry messaging was considered especially troubling because the messages were encrypted and virtually untraceable, according to an Aug. 8 report in U.K.'s The Daily Mirror newspaper. 

Tottenham Member of Parliament David Lammy has called upon BlackBerry makers Research in Motion to disable the system because the messages were believed to be helping the gang communications and contributing to the mayhem, The Mirror said.

At the same time, social media is said to be helping police identify rioters and coordinating cleanup efforts.

In New York, a large houseparty advertised on Facebook in June left a man dead and seven people injured. After that incident, New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told reporters that the department’s anti-gang unit was regularly checking Facebook and Twitter for notices of similar parties and events.

Similarly, other police agencies and the FBI have been using social media to track suspected gang and criminal activity and have found it to be an effective tool.

Gang members sometimes openly boast about their crimes on the social media sites and display photographs of themselves with gang tattoos and other identifying features on Facebook and YouTube, law enforcement officials said at a recent conference.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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