An Editor’s Note published July 12, 2017, about Kevin Deutsch’s reporting appears at the end of this story.
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.
Editor’s note: Newsday undertook an extensive, four-month review of reporting by Kevin Deutsch, who covered law enforcement from April 2012 to September 2016.
The review of the former Newsday reporter’s work began after The Baltimore Sun this year reported that law enforcement and other officials questioned the veracity of Deutsch’s nonfiction book “Pill City” about Baltimore’s drug trade. In addition, questions arose about individuals named in Newsday stories by Deutsch. Book publisher St. Martin’s Press and Deutsch have said they stand behind the book.
We are dedicated to accurate, factual reporting, to the highest journalistic standards and to maintaining our credibility with Newsday readers. We also are committed to being accountable to our readers. Newsday undertook the detailed review in that spirit and because of the concerns that were raised.
In late February, as our review was under way, The New York Times reported in an editor’s note that The Times “had been unable to locate or confirm the existence of two people who were named and quoted” in a Dec. 29, 2016, freelance article written by Deutsch. Deutsch “maintains that the interviews and the descriptions are accurate,” The Times wrote.
Newsday reviewed 600 stories with reporting by Deutsch. We contacted officials in the police departments regularly involved in Deutsch’s coverage. They said they had not had problems with his work. We then focused our research and reporting on individuals who, as described in the stories, would not be considered officials, or well-known, public figures.
The review found 77 stories with 109 individuals from Deutsch’s reporting whom Newsday could not locate. The main points of the stories were not affected. While two stories about the Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen were based on sources Newsday could not locate, other media reported the main points of those stories but with attribution from different sources. In this story, Newsday could not locate: David Akrish. Newsday is attaching an editor’s note to each story online that contains individuals we cannot locate.
Here’s how Newsday conducted the review:
Researchers and reporters searched local and national public records, sites providing nationwide people searches, databases of business, real estate and conviction records, social media sites including Facebook, LinkedIn and Ancestry.com and nationwide news archives. They searched potential alternate spellings and other name variations. Their reporting followed potential leads they found through research, within stories and in information shared by Deutsch during the review.
Finding people after publication, in some cases years later, can be difficult because of changes in residence, circumstance and contact information. Some may not have given their real names.
On the law enforcement beat, reporters may encounter people who lead lives that are not reflected in public records or other sources of information that would help locate them. It is possible that some on our list were difficult to find or reluctant to respond to our review because they are undocumented immigrants, those battling or recovering from addiction or people involved in or around illegal activity.
Some on our list were described discussing crimes in their neighborhoods, and others as relatives, friends or neighbors of victims or as individuals living near or knowing those accused of crimes.
Others we have not been able to locate, though, are described as bystanders, neighbors, spectators, relatives of drug victims, witnesses to news events or related in some way to people in the news. Still others are described in stories as people actively engaged in public issues, such as activists, protesters and marchers. Many individuals on the list are described as local.
Deutsch said in email exchanges with Newsday that “I have no doubt about the veracity of the claims of the sources I quoted.” He also said, “Not a single public official, source, or other interviewee has raised any issues with even one of these stories.”
“It's impossible for any reporter to know whether the name given to him by interviewees on the street--or those reached briefly by phone or email-- is that person's full and legal name, rather than an alias or variation of their real name (maiden names and certain common nicknames/abbreviations for first names are often published by newspapers, including Newsday.). But every one of the names on Newsday’s list was the name given to me by that interview subject, verbatim.”
During the four months of our review, Newsday shared questions and updates with Deutsch as we progressed in the search for individuals we could not locate. We requested notes and contact information. Deutsch sent us notes he said represented all individuals we were unable to locate and responded over the course of the review by email, sharing information he said was from his recollection and notes.
Reporters followed up on all information shared by Deutsch. He did not provide contact information for those on our list. Newsday reporters and editors sought unsuccessfully several times to meet with Deutsch to discuss his reporting and to review his notes together to ensure we were not missing contact information or other details that might help locate individuals. Deutsch maintained that the notes he shared “serve as evidence of interviews” with each source.
Deutsch said he kept contact information in a Rolodex he left behind at Newsday’s main office and in a company-issued cellphone he returned within a week after resigning on Sept. 6, 2016. Editorial staff did not find a Rolodex or other notes at our office, but found notes left at Newsday’s desk at a courthouse pressroom where he worked. We shared them with Deutsch and he confirmed they were his. As per company policy, the contents of the cellphone had been deleted immediately after Deutsch returned it to Newsday.
Maintaining the trust of our readers is essential to our mission. If we are able subsequently to locate any individuals, we will update our stories.