Police Departments Are Tagging You - Data Week


By Mark Falanga

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

It doesn’t seem like too long ago that, to solve a crime, the police needed to pound some pavement to look for clues. However, times change and new technology is slowly replacing the tried and true methods of old. A quick look at the NYPD’s high tech command center shows the average person that they’re committed to this change.

By simply scouring social media sites like Facebook, police in Brooklyn have made a clear difference. According to The NY Daily News, officers at the 73rd precinct spend hours each week looking at gang related pages on Facebook. From looking at the information, they’ve been able to take 199 guns off the street, up from 156 in 2011, more than any other precinct in the city.

“We have identified the bad guys and we are going after them,” Deputy Inspector Joseph Gulotta, the precinct commander, told the Daily News. “Social media has changed everything.”

What’s even more surprising is that the New York Civil Liberties Union, which is a staunch critic of NYPD practices, is complimentary of the initiative. But how far can the police use social media sites in their pursuit of lower crime? The answer may surprise you.

The department has, as of 2006, 4,468 cameras on the streets of New York City, and it’s using those cameras, in conjunction with facial recognition software, to identify and track criminals throughout the city.

While this is an effective tool, some fear that it’s simply too easy to abuse a person’s civil liberties. Some fear that police can easily use this to track suspected criminals, not just convicted ones. For example, if there is a protest, without surveillance, the police would have to physically break up and arrest every individual, which would be time consuming and potentially dangerous. With facial recognition software, the police can simply look to social media to found out who the organizers of the protest are, keep them under surveillance, and then detain them once they start to form the protest.

During a Senate hearing on privacy, Senator Al Franken (D-MN) expressed such concerns. “I fear that the FBI pilot could be abused to not only identify protesters at political events and rallies, but to target them for selective jailing and prosecution, stifling their First Amendment rights,” said Franken, “I also fear that without further protections, facial recognition technology could be used on unsuspecting civilians innocent of any crime — invading their privacy and exposing them to potential false identifications.”

This is not to say that the NYPD is the only police force using this kind of technology. Other police forces are use it, such as Tulsa, Oklahoma.

So is there any way to keep the prying eyes of the law off of our social media sites? BTR spoke with attorney Matthew Mugno, to find out an answer. Mugno explained that it’s a combination of the social media sites and us to blame for the information about us that’s viewable by authorities.

“No one is being forced to sign up for any social media, so if you sign up for a website and they are upfront about collecting what you search for or your demographic information or what have you and then can collect that data and sell it, or use it to market ads towards you, that’s fine,” says Mugno.

When asked how much of our information can be distributed by these sites, Mugno says, “If you ask a website I’m sure they would say it’s limitless. Really what this all should come down to is people need to understand what they are agreeing to when they sign up for social media.”

Despite this, Mugno explains that if these sites were to leak their information, similar to what happened to the PlayStation Network, lawsuits would surely follow for some form of negligence.

So if you want to keep your Facebook and Instagram from being used against you in court, check out their respective privacy pages and alter your profile accordingly.  Also, understand the risks that come with willfully putting all of this information online, but if you’re still worried over facial recognition, you can always just buying a pair of glasses.