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Are you one of the thousands of officers who have unknowingly put yourself or your family at risk? Have you thrown officer safety right out the window?
Sounds pretty ominous, doesn’t it? It should. The bad guys are paying attention to information that you’re providing, and sometimes you’re handing over the keys to the kingdom. Recent investigations have shown that items posted on Facebook and other social media sites are actively used as intelligence by the very people you’re trying to put in jail. Those cute photos of your child’s first day at school, combined with the one of you decked out in your tactical gear, could create a deadly combination.
There was a time when cops carefully protected personal information. What you do for a living, where you live, where your kids go to school, what your spouse looks like—this would never be made available to just anyone who asked. Well, that’s exactly what many officers are now doing and often without giving it a second thought.
Det. C.J. Wren of the Phoenix PD made this point clear when he spoke in May at the Social Media, Internet and Law Enforcement (SMILE) conference in Chicago. Wren has been involved in an extensive investigation that has documented the criminal use of Facebook information. As Wren spoke, it became apparent that seemingly innocent postings could have potentially disastrous consequences, especially when combined with other publicly available information.
The nefarious use of Facebook postings came to light when a repeat offender was found to be in possession of a disk containing several screen shots and photos of officers in the Phoenix area. All had been obtained from Facebook. When asked the obvious question, the crook’s reply was sobering: “We need to know what you guys (the cops) look like.”
That statement started an investigation that resulted in the recovery of multiple disks containing the same information, all in the possession of street criminals. It appears the disks were copies that had been marketed as a pictorial Who’s Who of plain clothes and undercover officers. The more Wren looked, the more he found and the greater the concern became.
Not surprisingly, some officers were upset when they became aware of the situation. Others found they’d been unknowingly compromised by a group photo posted by another officer.
The department was faced with significant personnel and assignment questions as it tried to maintain operational ability without putting officers in harm’s way. Some officers were temporarily reassigned, but pulling everyone was neither a practical nor desirable solution. To some degree, there was a certain level of acceptance that the information was out there. As Wren put it, “The genie is out of the bottle. We don’t know how far this has gone.”
Perhaps the most perplexing realization was that the collection and sale of the information might not even be against the law. This is subject to some debate but suffice it to say that there isn’t a specific penal code section clearly prohibiting the behavior. After all, the information was posted on the Internet for the world to see and use.
The power and beauty of social media is that it permits instant and effortless sharing of all aspects of your life with those you care about, regardless of distance, at minimal cost. Beware the potential pitfalls, use common sense and never get complacent—because social media are here to stay.
Bottom line: Officer safety begins with you. Remember: Complacency kills!
—Dale Stockton, Editor in chief
Social Media Basics: A few simple tips that might make your experience safer
• Take a look at your online postings, especially Facebook, and think about it from the perspective of a crook who is intent on compromising your ability to do your job or desirous of hurting a family member. Change or remove as needed.
• Become familiar with the privacy and sharing tools in Facebook. Although they continue to evolve, you do have some control, so use them.
• You don’t need to be paranoid, just cautious. And that degree of caution should be consistent with the sensitivity of your assignment. If you’re in a deep cover role and you have a Facebook page with cop photos, you’re playing with fire. Remember: Facial recognition software is becoming more effective and cheaper every day. It can be used for more than just finding the bad guy.
• Educate your family in a positive way, so they understand what the risks are and don’t post things that could result in a problem.
• Avoid giving specific information that could come back to haunt you. For instance, a photo of your five-year-old with a comment, “First day at Mission Elementary” may not be advisable.
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