Investigating the social Web

New training helps investigators find criminals and evidence on the Internet


     The idea began in Miami in January 2007, where Wagner was teaching a computer crimes class. An officer asked if there was a way to prevent young people from being victimized on MySpace. Wagner's initial idea was for the agency to make a MySpace page, then encourage area parents to have their children "friend" the Miami-Dade police. The program was a huge success. "In the first day they had almost 300 youths involved. In four days they had approximately 700," Daniels says.

     Likewise successful has been the Fairfield (Calif.) Police Department's page, started by Det. James Carden after his 13-year-old son was approached, via MySpace, by an older man. "As a parent I wanted it to stop, but as a cop, I knew the local police wouldn't be able to handle it because it wasn't criminal activity," Carden explains. "I had no resource except to tell my son not to talk to him, and to use my son's page to message the man to tell him to stop." But even that solution was limited. "Kids are on MySpace all the time, and parents can't be. Unless you go on your kid's page regularly, you don't know what's going on, and there are no checks and balances to protect them."

     The concept is simple: A police department representative spends time to create a MySpace page. (Visit Fairfield PD's at www.myspace.com/fairfieldpolice) This includes uploading the agency's official emblem — its patch — as its profile picture. When "friended," the patch shows up in the "friends" list (MySpace allows users to rank their friends so that specific friends appear on the front page all the time). "It's like parking a cop car in a neighborhood that's being hit by burglaries," Carden says.

     More than a deterrent, it's also a resource for the public to report suspicious activity — even if a crime has not taken place. "When we receive a complaint, we message the adult to ask them to 'cease and desist' before we take official action," says Carden, who is also attached to the Sacramento Valley Hi-Tech Crimes Task Force. "That way we don't have to use police time by taking a report, but we still have a way to deal with the problem."

     The program doesn't just address Internet crimes against children. Carden also posts department news releases on the page's blog and plans to post a slide show of criminals wanted in Fairfield, along with video of fraud suspects. He invites visitors to message him with tips about any and all illegal activity.

     Both the Fairfield and the Miami-Dade Police Departments used traditional media — newspaper and television — to publicize the page, and both saw positive responses. Next fall, Carden plans to visit Fairfield schools to help school resource officers spread the word. A former SRO himself, Carden believes meeting personally with the kids will help mitigate any "uncool" factor — although Carden says kids' bigger concern appears to be privacy.

     Because the project is driven by public feedback, he has no plans to create Fairfield police presences on sites like Facebook or Twitter; the community hasn't asked about it. Meanwhile, the MySpace page has proven effective. "Kids need to be able to point to a deterrent as society and technology change," Carden says. "Police need to be able to change with it."

     Ultimately, he hopes every police department will start a "My #1 Friend is a Cop" page — not only to connect with the community, but also to share information with each other. Daniels adds that any agency wishing to take part in the project can obtain valuable prepackaged information by contacting lauren.wagner@search.org.

     The bottom line: It may seem easy to log on and get to work, and indeed, learning how to investigate and participate in social network Web sites is a good start. But the real trick is in learning the underlying culture. "The question is, what will be next?" says Daniels. "Law enforcement's challenge is to predict what is on the horizon."

     Christa Miller is a South Carolina-based freelance writer who specializes in public safety issues. She can be contacted at christammiller@gmail.com.

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