Long Island police are monitoring social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook to fight suspected criminals who are tapping into online technology to scheme, recruit and boast of their exploits, local law enforcement officials said.
Nassau County police have brought in former analysts from the CIA and U.S. military intelligence to monitor sites used by street gangs, extremist groups and other lawbreakers.
Police are combing through thousands of Twitter accounts of people suspected of being involved in criminal activity. Local law enforcement agencies employ their own analysts to collect and make sense of information gleaned from tweets posted each day.
"They go to sleep every night dreaming of the next way they can take advantage of these networks," said Det. Sgt. Patrick Ryder, head of the Nassau police department's intelligence section, referring to suspected criminals who use social media. "But we've made their business online our business. We're on these sites every hour of every day."
Law enforcement officials say their efforts have helped detectives uncover planned drug transactions, locations of gang and extremist group gatherings, potential terrorist chatter and other information vital to local, state and federal investigators.
Popular with criminals
Even as law enforcement agencies use Twitter and Facebook to track and disrupt criminal activity, the sites are proving fertile breeding grounds for outreach and organization efforts by the groups, police say. Twitter, with its 140-character limit, is particularly popular with criminal elements because of the ease with which users can create accounts and keep their anonymity in the huge digital community.
Here's how the digital cat-and-mouse game works: Tweets, Facebook status updates and comments are turned from seemingly random information into organized data points by police intelligence experts, who mine them for keywords and locations that can reveal patterns or refer to illegal activity.
Police say their work does not require court authorization and is not unlike how businesses mine social media for sales opportunities. Police departments have argued that all information posted publicly in forums like Twitter and Facebook is subject to scrutiny. Official limits on social network snooping have not been instituted by the courts.
"It's really uncharted territory for the cops as well as the bad guys, so there's a Wild West mentality out there," said David Akrish, a social media researcher in Manhattan who studies the way law enforcement agencies and gang members use the web. "A lot can be communicated in 140 characters."
In Nassau, police analysts register on Twitter and Facebook using pseudonyms and ingratiate themselves into social networks they feel deserve closer scrutiny. With nothing more than a person's name, analysts can begin attracting that person's Twitter followers or Facebook friends to their undercover account and read their tweets, status updates, wall posts and communications with others.
Nassau detectives even ask newly arrested suspects for their Twitter handles -- the names they use online -- during interviews, police said.
Suffolk County police, like Nassau's, say they troll Twitter and Facebook for intelligence on criminal activity.
"These sites are a great resource to us," said Suffolk's deputy chief of detectives, Mark Griffiths. "We're always monitoring what [criminals] are doing online."
Pseudonymous accounts go against the rules set by social media sites, but they are not generally seen as illegal, experts say. For that reason, evidence collected by undercover cops online typically holds up in court.
"There's no law that prohibits police from setting up fake accounts," said Hanni Fakhoury, a staff attorney at the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, which seeks to protect Internet civil liberties. "The social media companies prohibit them under their terms of service, but that isn't necessarily criminal."
The ways criminals use Twitter vary, depending on their goals. Long Island street gangs, for example, often mock or intimidate each other's members on the site, police say.
Gangs also use social media to organize alcohol- and drug-fueled parties, which police say they often shut down ahead of time. The groups even post photos of their weapons, drugs, gang colors and videos of "jump-ins" -- initiation rites in which new members are beaten by the rest of the group, police said.
"They love to pose holding a gun or standing around a table of cocaine, showing they're tough," Ryder said. "It's all about the image for them."
According to a study conducted by Arizona State University criminologist Scott Decker, nearly 20 percent of gang members surveyed said their crews had their own website or page on a social media site.
Among those, 11 percent said their gangs plotted activities online, with many using coded language.
On Long Island, Ryder says, gang members have their own code words. They have used "a pair of kicks" for 2 kilos of cocaine, and "mommy" or "my girl" for a gun, he said.
Police also comb Twitter for communications among potential terrorists and extremist groups, including anti-government movements, Islamic extremists, and local members of the Bloods and Crips gangs, Ryder said.
A magnet for radicals
Twitter has been a magnet for radicals, police say. The site helped lead to a 30 percent increase in the number of online forums for hate groups and terrorism in just the past year, according to the Simon Wiesenthal Center's May 2013 report on digital hate speech. The center is a worldwide organization that combats anti-Semitism.
The number of "hate-spewing hashtags and handles" featuring racist language on Twitter quadrupled from 5,000 in 2011 to 20,000 in 2012, the report found.
Twitter says it does not comment on individual accounts, but the company's head of safety, Del Harvey, said in a recent blog post that it's impossible for the site to review every tweet, which can number up to 500 million a day.
"While manually reviewing every Tweet is not possible due to Twitter's global reach and level of activity, we use both automated and manual systems to evaluate reports of users potentially violating our Twitter Rules," Harvey wrote. "These rules explicitly bar direct, specific threats of violence against others and use of our service for unlawful purposes, for which users may be suspended when reported."
He said the company is "not blind to the reality that there will always be people using Twitter in ways that are abusive and may harm others."
Like Nassau, police departments around the country are hiring former government intelligence analysts -- including veterans of the National Security Agency -- to find and analyze reams of usable online data, much of it from social media.
"The way police are collecting and analyzing intelligence is not drastically different from what the NSA, CIA and FBI have been doing on the federal level," Akrish said.