The new media culture has infiltrated every sector of society. It has created careers and positions in the nonprofit and marketing world, political campaigns, entertainment industry, and news publications. Now, we can add law enforcement to the growing list.
Last week, NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly issued a memo that lays out the groundwork for utilizing social media for police investigations. According to the memo, officers who use social media for investigations can register their social media aliases and pseudonyms with the department. They are also limited to using the user account and trolling the web on a department computer/laptop on site.
While the NYPD’s blatant racial/ethnic profiling and wanton disregard for any concept of privacy is clear in their surveillance of Muslim communities and unwarranted frisks of young black and brown men, the line is conveniently obscure when it comes to online practices.
But what is transparent is that the NYPD’s recent push for social media policing can and will open the floodgates for abuse. Just as with stop-and-frisk, the Patriot Act and other practices that somehow bamboozle the public into believing that they are effectively apprehending the next Son of Sam, history indicates that this is yet another practice that will alienate certain groups with limited opposition.
Big brother tactics have done little to improve the social welfare of New York City.
Exhibit A is the NYPD’s self-proclaimed sophisticated surveillance of Muslim communities. Ever since 9/11, the NYPD has doctored a penumbra that counts religious affiliation as grounds for reasonable suspicion or probable cause.
Meanwhile, their efforts have not detected or impeded any real threats. (Unless, of course, you count mentally ill stoners who are in constant communication with undercover officers who aggressively convince them into helping them in investing in an unrealistic terrorist plot, such as running an explosive pipeline through JFK’s jet fuels.) Even Mayor Bloomberg admits that it is nearly impossible to gauge how the practice has impeded any terrorist plots. The last legitimate plot was tipped by a Muslim street vendor at Time Square.
Exhibit B is stop-and-frisk, in which black and brown men comprise of 87% of the frisks, though they only constitute about 14% of the precincts’ served populations. Meanwhile, 90% of the frisks do not result in an arrest and most cases see the summonses thrown away by the courts.
But is the internet a different animal?
Obviously, the paradoxical elephant in the chat room is that people share all sorts of information online. From ultrasound photos to footage of drunken escapades, it seems as if social media enthusiasts forfeit their right to privacy from the moment tweet and updated their status. Not to mention that merely 25% of Facebook users utilize the privacy settings.
But that misses the point. What is truly unethical is the use of deception to invade users’ controlled self-representation and disclosure by hoodwinking them into communicating with legally ordained con artists. There is nothing wrong with the NYPD using social media to track down suspects and gather information for pending investigations, but there is an ethical line of privacy being compromised when officers start using pseudonyms to extract all sorts of noncriminal related information from our domains of carefree self-expression. An informant or undercover cop cracks down on gang activity by planting himself into their culture and learning the ins-and-outs of that crime life. But the digital informant is not planting him/herself into a criminal domain.
The counterargument — that online policing practices can and have led to criminal apprehension — is also misleading. Most of the criminals that were tracked down were either simpleminded enough to post photos and status updates that boasted their criminal activity, or uploaded videos of them committing a crime on the classy World Star Hip Hop. In those cases, any of us could’ve ‘tracked them down.’
The NYPD’s push is yet another avenue for profiling and public deception that will further complicate their relationship with the people they serve. Look for the NYCLU and other groups that advocate for fair policing to add this to the struggle.