Commentary

Philly Police Bow "Video Villains"

Social media has all kind of interesting but unexpected applications, including law enforcement, where online technology helps leverage the most important resource for police work -- cooperation and information from the community being policed.

This week the Philadelphia Police Department unveiled a new crime-fighting initiative using social media called "Video Villains" -- a "most wanted list" comprised of criminals caught in the act by video surveillance cameras (including both property and violent crimes). The Philly PD is posting the videos as well as still shots of the culprits on YouTube (www.youtube.com/user/philadelphiapolice ) and Flickr (www.flickr.com/phillypolice), so concerned citizens can help the police identify and hopefully apprehend them. The Philly police are also posting updates about "Video Villains" investigations to Facebook  (www.facebook.com/phillypd), Twitter (www.twitter.com/phillypolice), and their own Web site at Phillypolice.com.

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In previous columns I've written about social media initiatives from Boston's MBTA transit police, who created an official Twitter homepage to serve as a public tip line, a part of a system which allows riders to send tips (and photos) via text messages directly to the authorities. Images submitted by the public can be cross-referenced with images from approximately 700 security cameras covering the MBTA's train stations, trolleys, buses, and garages.

Meanwhile the local police department in Evesham, N.J. has begun posting mug shots on the police department's Facebook profile, in a move that is basically designed to publicly shame miscreants ranging from drunk drivers to car thieves and worse. In the same vein, police in Huntington Beach, Calif. are posting names and mug shots of drunk drivers on the city's Facebook page, per a suggestion from the City Council. One advocate, councilman Devin Dwyer, told the Los Angeles Times that the local newspaper, The Huntington Beach Independent, had stopped publishing drunk driving reports but argued that public shaming remains an important tactic for discouraging drunk driving.

At the federal level, the Department of Homeland Security has been using social networks to ferret out fake "green card" marriages between U.S. citizens and immigrants for the purpose of obtaining residency or citizenship for the latter. According to internal government documents obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation: "Narcissistic tendencies in many people fuels a need to have a large group of 'link' to their pages and many of these people accept cyber-friends that they don't even know. This provides an excellent vantage point for [the Office of Fraud Detection and National Security] to observe the daily life of beneficiaries and petitioners who are suspected of fraudulent activities."

Overseas, the Israeli military is using Facebook to catch female draft-dodgers who avoid military duty by pleading religious exemption. According to a recent report, over 1,000 young women have been caught lying about their religious belief to evade military service using evidence from the social network. This includes photos or status updates showing them eating at non-kosher restaurants, dressing immodestly, or RSVP-ing for party invitations on Friday nights, during the Jewish Sabbath.

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