Twenty-four hours before the first of two bombs exploded on Boston’s Boylston Street on April 15, I was walking that very street, impressed with the organized way the city was preparing for the 117th running of the Boston Marathon.
As I walked, I was often passed by thinly clad runners doing last-minute preps for the next day’s big road race. More than 21,000 runners take part in this mother of all marathons, and it is a sight to behold.
A world of difference
What a difference a week made. Instead of great memories of individual races well-run, we had memories of chaos for what happened at the finish line, and the sorrow that comes from grieving three lives lost at more than 170 wounded; many severely.
As Monday morphed into Tuesday and beyond, my attention shifted not only to the hunt to find the bombers, but to the roles that communication technology and the social media played in those manhunts.
It began occurring to me last Monday night that this was probably the most photographed crime in history, and that the chances of the culprits being identified early were much greater than the chances they would not be identified at all.
You’re on Candid Camera
Boston is one of America’s many cities that relies a lot on street and store surveillance cameras to record anything that might later prove to need recording.
Ironically, The Boston Globe reported on the rise in the use of street cameras back in August of 2007. Reporter Charlie Savage wrote:
“The Department of Homeland Security is funneling millions of dollars to local governments nationwide for purchasing high-tech video camera networks, accelerating the rise of a ‘surveillance society’ … Since 2003, the department has handed out some $23 billion in federal grants to local governments for equipment and training to help combat terrorism. ”
Privacy not a concern here
While many of us, at times, worry about the threat these surveillance cameras pose to our individual privacy, this was not one of those weeks in Boston. We wanted police and FBI to see as many people as possible and, in reviewing those images, to find the guys that did this crime.
Of course, that is exactly what happened.
But it wasn’t just the street cameras, or even the camera from Lord & Taylor on Boylston Street, that did the job. These cameras were joined by the hundreds of cell phone cameras from everyday citizens who had gathered — they thought — to watch the remainder of the marathoners cross the finish line.
When those camera images were added to the surveillance camera results, the world saw who the two brothers were who ignited these bombs. Call if citizen journalism at its best.
Interviewed later, New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said, “The use of cameras was invaluable; both surveillance and smart phone cameras.”
Social media exposure
But the images still needed to be circulated to all of us. Television was the first to do that, but many young people don’t watch TV these days. So it was the images uploaded to the social media of Facebook and Twitter that helped complete the job and let everyone see the faces of terror in Boston.
It is no secret that young people get their news from places like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and the home pages of AOL and Yahoo. So getting the images out on the Web in sites like these helped in many ways to get maximum interaction from people who knew either of the two brothers, or perhaps both.
Not only did people start calling in tips to police, but some netziens became amateur sleuths in circulating, deciphering, and analyzing photos and factoids to piece together theories of the crime and where the suspects might be hiding.
Users become sleuths
One site in which Web users became investgators was Reddit.com. One sub-group that was formed almost immediately was classified under “Find the Bomber” On this home page, more than 60,000 users discussed different photos of the crime scene and exchanged ideas about where the suspects might be.
This is a classic example of what I wrote about several weeks ago in this blog when discussing crowd sourcing. Although, in this case, the crowd was not so much used as story sources, but as potential sources of information that might be helpful to police.
One expert noted this week, “Everyone became a soldier armed with information.”
And former Boston and New York Police Commissioner simply stated it this way, in an interview Saturday night with CBS’ 48 Hours:
“Every step of the way, technology played a part in bringing these two men to justice. Every step of the way.”
When I was starting out in the newspaper business (remember that medium? he asked wistfully), I wrote a lot of obits as new reporters often do. One of the earliest warnings I remember receiving from readers was that, if you list the street address of the deceased and give the time and day of the funeral, you are alerting potential burglars to the presence of an empty house.
That’s the reason some newspapers don’t list those street addresses and it’s why families of the deceased ask a friend to watch the house while they are gone to the last rites.
I was thinking about that this morning when a segment of NBC’s Today show caught my eye and ear. It concerned yet another problem area of self-disclosing too much personal information (what I call living out loud) on Twitter, Facebook, or Foursquare. The latter is the location-based social network where players use their mobile devices to report their presence at a particular spot on a map for others to see. The more you visit certain places, the more points you stack up, etc., etc.
Great. So now you not only can bore others with what you are doing; you can show them where you’re doing it.
That raise any red flags to you?
Apparently it has to a lot of thieves, according to Amy Roebuck’s report on Today wherein she profiled a young couple who permanently loaned two laptops and a digital flatscreen TV to house burglars who knew they weren’t home. And how did they know that? Because one of them, caught on a home security videocam, turned out to be a FB friend of one victim and had seen her post about where she and her hubbie were headed on – ironically – the day her house was to be burgled.
An obvious question
The obvious question is why don’t social networkers choose their FB friends more carefully if they’re going to post that kind of information. The reality is that most of us have a lot of “friends” on that site whom we don’t really know that well.
When you see users whose pages boast more than 1,000 friends, you get the idea.
One reformed burglar, 35-year-old Richard Taylor, told the British Web site, Parental Control, how thieves use Twitter and Facebook in the UK to plan break-ins.
“I’ve seen lots of people who post a status update about being excited that they’re going away to Spain,” Taylor said. “But if you have 900 Facebook friends, how many do you really know? You might recognise their name from school but do you also know all their friends who could also see your updates?
“People put all kinds of information on Facebook including their address and mobile number. A burglar just has to call your mobile and if there’s an international ring tone they know you are away. These days everyone is Twitter-mad, I use it myself. But putting information that anyone can see on the internet leaves you vulnerable to a break-in. ”
As is usually the case, where there is an issue like this occurring on social networks, there is an entire Web site or sites that are launched to address, solve, or sometimes exploit the situation. Sounding a warning against helping thieves burgle your home is one such site called, plainly enough, Please Rob Me .
What this site does – or rather used to do because it has stopped – was to stream data from Foursquare, showing how many homes are left unattended after their residents have announced their plans to be elsewhere. The tagline of the site is, “Raising awareness about over-sharing.” Apparently someone felt Please Rob Me was oversharing, too, however, and it has discontinued running those lists of unattended places.
The out-of-town crier
The site picked up the information when the Foursquare disclosures were posted by users to Twitter, making it totally available to anyone on the planet with access to the Internet.
Now the Please Rob Me home page says, “We are satisfied with the attention we’ve gotten for an issue that we deeply care about … Currently we’re looking through the emails we’ve received regarding the future of the website. As soon
as we’ve thought of a suitable way to continue, you’ll find it right here. We’re not showing the Twitter messages anymore.”
One could make a strong case that this site, which launched just last February, was exacerbating the problem caused by oversharing on the social networks. That may well be the reason it is looking to reinvent itself. But Please Rob Me did succeed in getting the attention of the mainstream media, as witnessed by this morning’s NBC broadcast segment. There is value in that.
As for me, my Facebook and Twitter messages announce that I’m always home, I never go anwhere, and my 145-pound Bullmastiff is a light sleeper on his bed just inside the back door.
Police forces around the country are shaking off the image of cops as an unsocial lot. In fact, they are turning to social media to help them interact more with the town’s residents and catch crooks.
If it were an official computer application, it might be called Gotcha! Unfortunately, that name has already been snatched up by a software that helps teachers and college profs catch cheating students.
Over in Alva, the police department has launched its own Facebook page
(http://www.facebook.com/pages/Alva-OK/Alva-Oklahoma-Police-Department/2944649877770). It not only features photos and information designed to let citizens help them find suspects. It also connects the department to the community in ways not possible before the social networking era.
Connecting police to the town
On that page you can find photos of the APD vs. AFD 2010 AFD Mud Run, and feedback from Alva residents about how great it is to see police officers and firefighters stage a fun event like that for charity.
Oklahoma City police also have their own Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Oklahoma-City-OK/Oklahoma-City-Police-Department/65444419168), and it is full of official reports albeit short on the friendly community flavor of Alva’s page.
Alva’s Facebook page lists some 800 friends, while the Oklahoma City PD page lists some 4,700. Compared to the relative sizes of the two cities, Alva police have a higher percentage of residents connected to their page.
Elsewhere in the country, police in the northeast Ohio town of Medina are using Facebook in several unique ways. Not only are they asking for residents’ help in spotting at-large suspects; they are becoming “friends” with those suspects themselves, sometimes on the fugitives’ own FB pages.
Stories like this have to join the growing list of stupid criminal jokes. Seems it’s not just college students posting pictures of themselves violating university rules; felony suspects have their own Facebook pages, too.
Last year, Medina Police searched Facebook the first time for a suspect, arresting a 27-year-old man who had fled an old warrant for drug charges. The department believes this may have been the first case in Ohio – if not the country – of police using Facebook to catch fugitives.
“Thirty years ago, we posted wanted fliers at the post office; today it’s Facebook,” Police Chief Patrick Berarducci told the Akron Beacon Journal. “I’m shocked at how fast this first arrest came in.”
Seeking the town’s help
Also in Ohio, the Reynoldsburg Division of Police has begun its own Facebook page in which it posts news about outstanding arrest warrants, pictures of suspects and of missing persons, latest crime stats for the area, you name it. The idea is to get citizens to help them in spotting suspects and to alert residents to criminal activity in the area.
Detective Mike Bender told the Columbus NBC-TV affiliate, “We picked the clearest photos (of suspects) we could and posted them on Facebook. This is a quick way to reach a large number of the population. Also, people log onto their Facebook accounts all the time and this way people can access the info when they want it.”
Reynoldsburg is only one of many police departments, large and small, around the country that have turned to the social media to help fight crime.
Seems like it works all the way over in Maine, too.
“Smile!” You’re on Candid Camera
In Auburn, police had a Facebook page up for less than three weeks before residents identified the video of three vandalism suspects in action, taken by a surveillance camera during the crime. Police in this Maine town also posted another video showing a suspect stealing a snowboard from a local ski shop. They expect that will lead to an arrest, too.
Auburn Deputy Police Chief Jason Moen told the Associated Press, “This latest arrest is proof positive that this is just another way for us to use emerging technology.”
The Web site, ‘Inside Facebook,” (www.insidefacebook.com) chronicles a few ways in which still other police departments are using the social media and why.
In the Indianapolis suburb of Greenville, for example, the police department posts the Indiana Sheriff’s Sex and Violent Offender Registry as one of its Links. They also link to the citizens group of Crime Stoppers of Central Indiana.
Helpful hints in California
The Salinas, Calif., PD issues press releases on Facebook and Twitter and provides helpful information for town residents. For example, in one January post, they told residents what to do during a bad storm if they saw a downed power line and provided emergency phone numbers for the gas and electric company.
Big cities like Chicago and Dallas also have active FB pages, although many of the smaller departments seem to actually take more care personalizing their pages, perhaps reflecting the connectedness of their communities. That seemed to be the same pattern in the Oklahoma City and Alva pages, as mentioned earlier.
Facebook and Twitter have proven to be a particularly good way for police to reach young people who have pretty much turned out the mainstream media newscasts and newspapers. For example, the sheriff’s department in Gainesville, Fla., responded to a survey showing many of the University of Florida students don’t watch or read the news. But nearly all of them were logging onto Facebook regularly.
All in all, it’s not your father’s police force anymore.