Modern field guide to security and privacy

Twitter sleuths help solve 'hate crime.' Should crimefighting be crowdsourced?

After social media users used digital tracking tools to possibly ID suspects accused of beating up a gay couple, some ethicists caution that such Twitter-era tools could ultimately do as much harm as good.

Kacper Pempel/Reuters/File
People holding mobile phones are silhouetted against a backdrop on which the Twitter logo is projected, in this September 27, 2013 photo illustration.

In a crime-fighting episode hailed as yet another wonder of the digital age, a cadre of online Twitter sleuths may have helped Philadelphia detectives identify a group of raucous preppie 20-somethings last week after the group hurled slurs and beat up a male gay couple on the evening of Sept. 11.

The crime may have been solved this week after police released a grainy surveillance video of the suspects Monday – a timeworn tactic since the days of posting “Wanted” posters in post offices, as well as on “crime stopper” TV shows and other media outlets.

But in this case, police were aided just hours after posting the surveillance video as tech-savvy Twitter and Facebook users employed their sites’ digital tracking tools to hone in on the suspects – a group of white men and women, who police described as “clean cut and well-dressed” professionals out together on a Thursday night.

According to police, members of the group began hurling homophobic slurs at the two gay men walking near them in Philly’s wealthy Rittenhouse neighborhood. A few of the revelers then began to pummel the men, leaving one with a fractured jaw and eye socket, and his partner with bruises and lacerations. 

Philadelphia police called the assault a hate crime, which also included robbery, since the group made off with one of the men’s bag, which contained his wallet.

“This is how Twitter is supposed to work for cops,” tweeted Philadelphia Police detective Joseph Murray on Tuesday. “I will take a couple thousand Twitter detectives over any one real detective any day.”

“Now let's do this for every crime and take over the world,” Detective Murray tweeted again.

Yet even as the episode has been celebrated as a triumph for “crowdsourcing” the solving of crime, some ethicists caution that such Twitter-era surveillance tools could ultimately do as much harm as good.

“There’s a very fine line,” says Aram Sinnreich, a digital privacy expert at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. “Obviously, it’s a good thing that citizens are feeling empowered to share information with one another using social media and Internet tools to try to enforce social standards and to seek collective justice. Gay bashing and violence isn’t good, and we should try to put a stop to it. 

“The problem is when the police and other government or powerful institutions become involved in the process,” Professor Sinnreich continues. “The surveillance infrastructure is so powerful today that when already powerful institutions become involved, the potential for exploitation of those powers is so great that it becomes inevitable.”

And crowdsourcing criminal suspects can go awry. Following the Boston Marathon bombings last year, a number of Reddit users employed surveillance video captures to finger a missing Brown University student whose parents had posted a Facebook page to help find him. The false accusation went viral – police arrested Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is awaiting trial, and his brother was killed in a shootout – and the family endured weeks of humiliation and pain before their son’s body was later found. 

“As the amount of surveillance that we do as a society increases exponentially, the opportunities for those kinds of false positives also increases exponentially,” Sinnreich says.

In this case, after police released their surveillance capture, a Twitter user sent out a Facebook photo he came across that appeared to match the suspects posing in an unnamed restaurant. Other users quickly identified the restaurant in the Philly neighborhood through its interior decor.

Then Twitter user @FanSince09 employed the Facebook tool Graph Search, which can search all the public data online to track social media users who check in at a particular spot. Seeing some of the people who matched the police surveillance video, @FanSince09 called the police.

Murray tweeted a “shout out” to the online sleuth afterward: “S/O to @FanSince09. This is what makes my job easy. Sure, it's up to me to make the arrest but we are all in this together.”

Murray made clear however, that no arrests had been made, and that much work remained to be done.

Some of the suspects met with police for questioning on Thursday, according to reports, and their attorneys are claiming the exchange was not a hate crime, but a street altercation instigated by one of the alleged victims.

But in an era of burgeoning surveillance with technology that can pinpoint people’s location, the potential for abuse is great. These same tools are used by domestic abusers to track and locate their victims, and many cases of “LOVEINT” has occurred in recent years – the digital age term that refers to the phenomenon of intelligence service employees using their access to surveillance tools to stalk love interests.

“There’s a reason that we have due process in the United States,” Sinnreich says. “And we need to make sure that we don’t undo the civil liberties that we have, in our effort to make ourselves more secure.”

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