A seemingly innocuous incident at a Pittsburgh Steelers game over the weekend prompted concern about the consequences of law enforcement mining social media to predict crimes.
At Saturday’s Ravens-Steelers playoff game, a Steelers fan named Jake Berlin sent out a Twitter message stating he would run onto Heinz Field if 400 people “retweeted,” or resent, his message.
“Screw it, #Steelers are losing anyway. 400 RTs and I’ll run onto Heinz Field,” Berlin tweeted.
More than 6,000 people retweeted Berlin’s message, but Berlin had no opportunity to carry out the dare.
He informed his followers he was removed from the stadium by security.
In Berlin’s case, stadium security likely was responding according to its own rules. However, the use of social media by law enforcement agencies to predict crimes could become a reality.
One recent private project aims to predict criminal activity using vast quantities of data on citizens mined from social network websites such as Facebook and Twitter.
In February, the Sydney Morning Herald reported the Massachusetts-based multinational corporation, Raytheon – the world’s fifth largest defense contractor – had developed a “Google for Spies” operation.
Herald reporter Ryan Gallagher wrote that Raytheon had “secretly developed software capable of tracking people’s movements and predicting future behavior by mining data from social networking websites” like Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare.
The software is called RIOT, or Rapid Information Overlay Technology.
Raytheon told the Herald it has not sold RIOT to any clients but admitted that, in 2010, it had shared the program’s software technology with the U.S. government as part of a “joint research and development effort … to help build a national security system capable of analyzing ‘trillions of entities’ from cyberspace.”
In April, RIOT was reportedly showcased at a U.S. government and industry national security conference for secretive, classified innovations, where it was listed under the category “big data – analytics, algorithms.”
Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst for the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, argued that major ethical dilemmas ensue although RIOT apparently utilizes only publicly available information from companies like Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare.
“The government has no business rooting around people’s social network postings – even those that are voluntarily publicly posted – unless it has specific, individualized suspicion that person is involved in wrongdoing,” Stanley wrote on the ACLU blog.
Stanley wrote that among the many problems with government large-scale analytics of social network information “is the prospect that government agencies will blunderingly use these techniques to tag, target and watchlist people coughed up by programs such as RIOT, or to target them for further invasions of privacy based on incorrect inferences.”
“The chilling effects of such activities,” he concluded, “while perhaps gradual, would be tremendous.”
Ginger McCall, attorney and director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s Open Government program, told NBC in February, “This sort of software allows the government to surveil everyone.
“It scoops up a bunch of information about totally innocent people. There seems to be no legitimate reason to get this, other than that they can.”
As for RIOT’s ability to help catch terrorists, McCall called it “a lot of white noise.”
The London Guardian further obtained a four-minute video that shows how the RIOT software uses photographs on social networks. The images, sometimes containing latitude and longitude details, are “automatically embedded by smartphones within so-called ‘exif header data.’
RIOT pulls out the information, analyzing not only the photographs posted by individuals, but also the location where these images were taken, the Guardian reported.
Such sweeping data collection and analysis to predict future activity may further explain some of what the government is doing with the phone records of millions of Verizon customers.
In March 2006, the New York Times first reported the National Security Agency was utilizing phone records to search for patterns.
“In the increasingly popular language of network theory, individuals are “nodes,” and relationships and interactions form the “links” binding them together; by mapping those connections, network scientists try to expose patterns that might not otherwise be apparent,” reported the Times.
In February 2006, more than a year after Obama was sworn as a U.S. senator, it was revealed the “supposedly defunct” Total Information Awareness data-mining and profiling program had been acquired by the NSA.
The Total Information Awareness program was first announced in 2002 as an early effort to mine large volumes of data for hidden connections.
With additional research by Brenda J. Elliott