Home > 2014 > Identity Theft

Police Hope Software Will Stop Crime Before It Happens

Advertiser Disclosure Comments 0 Comments

The promise to local police departments is simple: Buy our software, and we will help you prevent crime before it happens. How? Through a social media “listening lens.”

Called “SnapTrends,” the web-based service sifts through every Facebook status, Tweet, Instagram photo, YouTube video and other social media post within a designated area. That “listening lens” can be focused on “any size or shaped area you want, as big as a country or as small as a city block.” Racine, Wisc. officials voted to buy the software on Wednesday; it might come to your town soon.

Brochures and whitepapers hawking the system promise “incident prevention” from “predictive analysis.”  SnapTrends is dubbed “law enforcement’s latest informant.”  It even promises to monitor the posts and movements of journalists and protestors.


SnapTrends law enforcement brochure

In a daring boast to show off the “power” than “emanates” from SnapTrends, the firm’s website includes a button that says, “See the Power.” Click there, and you’ll be urged to “give us something to find in your area.” Then, “Examples: Find someone in Seattle, Washington talking about cocaine.”

An infographic designed for law enforcement includes a picture of a smartphone with a message on it reading, “I’ve had enough!!” – suggested an enraged user hinting through a status update that he or she is ready to commit violence — under the headline “incident prevention.”

Several products promise to help government organizations and corporations monitor social media chatter, but SnapTrends says its product is superior because its listening lens can be fine-tuned geographically. There is an emphasis on its predictive abilities.

“Accessing data in real time is critical to law enforcement officials who don’t want to squander an opportunity to stop criminal behavior before it starts,” reads one bit of marketing material. “SnapTrends enables you to leverage open social networks to spot ‘chatter’ that might give an indication that trouble is about to happen,” says another.

While such chatter might sound right out of the Department of PreCrime from the movie The Minority Report, SnapTrends is actually on sale now to local police departments across America. The city of Racine, Wisc. voted Wednesday night to skip its normal bidding process and direct $4,200 in crime-seized funds for a subscription to SnapTrends, offered by an Austin, Texas, firm of the same name that opened for business in 2012. The vote was 14-1. When local officials questioned police about potential civil liberties concerns, Police Chief Art Howell soothed those concerns.

“I can almost assure you that there is enough stuff going in this town that we don’t have idle time to surf the internet,” Howell said, according to local newspaper The Journal Times. The news came as the second item in a typical city council story which was headlined, “More window signs allowed,” about an ordinance permitting stores to hang more signs, which was far more controversial.

Howell refused an interview for this story – and SnapTrends did not respond to an interview request — but I had a brief exchange with Sgt. Jessie Metoyer, Racine police public information officer, over email.

“We can’t provide specifics regarding our investigative tools, tactics and strategies, including SnapTrends, as that could compromise future investigations. We believe doing so would undermine our local investigative effort and would not want to jeopardize that. Publicizing our investigative strategies could harm criminal investigations,” she said. “This technology, which is utilized by law enforcement across the country, would strictly be used for criminal investigation purposes.”

SnapTrends is aggressively marketing its products to law enforcement, with some success. Earlier this year, Coral Gables, Fla. agreed to pay $10,500 for a year’s subscription to the software.


Composite from SnapTrends.com

Metoyer also pointed to a recent crime-related success with social media monitoring. The gruesome murder of a teenager in Racine was recently solved in part because police found a rap video posted by the suspect on SoundCloud, a music sharing website. Lyrics from the video, which seem to mention the murder, sound like admission to a crime and were included in the criminal complaint.

But in some cities, civil liberties advocates have raised alarm bells about the technology. When the sheriff’s office in El Paso, Texas, considered buying SnapTrends, there were complaints about potential civil liberties impacts.

“What becomes concerning is if they’re monitoring First Amendment activity, any effort like this has to be very careful and clear that First Amendment activity is not the basis for any criminal investigation,” said Matt Simpson, of the Texas ACLU, according to GovTech.com. He also warned, “It’s easy to take things out of context online.”

SnapTrends makes the case throughout its marketing materials that its software merely collects publicly available information and makes sense out of it for law enforcement.

“There is a common misconception that social media monitoring software allows users to spy on their subjects and access their personal information. However, that is simply not the case. Social media listening tools scan sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and other open source pieces of information for certain keywords and phrases and gathers the data to see specific trends,” the firm says in one blog entry.

While the firm makes a case that it only gathers items that Internet users have already deemed suitable for public consumption, not long ago the firm bragged about its ability to go deeper than users imagine when they write posts. The firm’s biggest selling point is its ability to geolocate posts – apparently even if users don’t want to be geolocated. In a story published on Quartz in July, a SnapTrends official bragged that the firm could place subjects who refuse to geo-tag Tweets and disabled GPS.

“If it’s a dense environment. I can put you within a block. If it’s a [bad] environment I can put you within two or three blocks,” said Todd Robinson, who according to Quartz is director of operations for Defense Military Intelligence for the company General Dynamics Information Technology, GDIT, and SnapTrends president for Middle Eastern operations. GDIT partnered with SnapTrends to sell their services to the government. “Once I do have you, I click this button right here, I can go back five years [of social media posts.]”

The firm uses “cell tower density, social network knowhow, and various other elements to figure out who is posting what and where,” the story says.

Still, a whitepaper designed for law enforcement tries to allay any concerns about Constitutional rights.

“From a larger legal perspective, questions are developing for public safety organizations asking: Is monitoring social media a violation of individual privacy rights? All individual subscribers of social media services should understand anything posted publicly via a social service has been voluntarily placed in the public domain,” it says. “The standard legal test is this: Do you have a reasonable expectation of privacy with social media? There is a strong argument that one has a reasonable expectation of privacy with private settings and no expectation with open settings.”

The standard legal test also concerns fishing expeditions. They’re not allowed, unless you are a federal agency working under some kind of national security exception, a lesson Ed Snowden reminded us about. Law enforcement searches must be focused, targeted and generally require some level of reasonable suspicion. There is a high level of interest in not having police attend every gathering of citizens – virtually or otherwise – and listen to their discussions. Doing so would have a chilling effect on conversation, and ultimately lead to infringement of the First Amendment’s right to speech. So when El Paso County Sheriff Deputy Jesse Tovar told Govtech.com, “We’re not focusing on anybody in particular…It’s a public safety resource tool, not spying,” his argument is unconvincing to those worried about fishing expeditions.

“Assuming that the product is confined to information that is public like a Tweet, then in general there are no Fourth Amendment issues with law enforcement accessing it, but I think there are serous policy issues about the question of whether we want law enforcement to spend time and resources monitoring the online activity of Americans without any kind of reasonable suspicion,” said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. “Suspicionless dragnets inevitably lead to profiling and have tremendous potential to create chilling effects. We don’t want Americans to pause when they type a tweet and think about law enforcement looking over (their) shoulders.”

Stanley was also skeptical of the software’s ability to do what SnapTrends claims, such as provide locations for Tweets even if users turn off GPS services. Most of all, he said, the notion of predicting crime from social media posts was misguided.

“There’s a seductive quality to online evidence. When we’ve seen somebody whose done something bad, we see all the precursors to the crime (online) and think, ‘If only we looked at it ahead of time we could have prevented it.’ But the problem is it only works in retrospect,” Stanley said. “For every person who does something bad after an angry post, there are tens and thousands who wrote angry posts with no intention of ever committing a crime. This will flood law enforcement with false positives.”

Brad Shear, a social media law expert based in Washington, D.C., who has led the charge against blanket monitoring of students’ social media posts by schools, said he’d never heard of SnapTrends. But he had a series of questions about it.

“Does this work? What type of regulations will be in place regarding collecting, archiving and acting upon the data law enforcement is receiving? How long will the content be saved,” he asked, and continued. “Who will have access to it? How will the police determine if a Tweet is a lyric to a new hit song or a clear and present danger to public safety? Will the generated social media monitoring reports be available to the public under an open records request? Is the social media monitoring company selling the information it is collecting under the contract to third parties?

Without law enforcement agencies or the software company involved answering questions, it will be hard to get the answers. Without those answers, all social media monitoring should immediately stop, argues Jeramie D. Scott, National Security Counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

“Law enforcement monitoring of social media implicates the First Amendment. Government programs that threaten important First Amendment rights are immediately suspect and should only be undertaken where the government can demonstrate a compelling interest that cannot be satisfied in another way,” he said. “Any law enforcement agency should cease social media monitoring until the polices and procedures applicable to the program are made public. Although law enforcement may claim that these programs are narrowly tailored and do not threaten First Amendment protected activities, until law enforcement agencies provide the necessary transparency to ensure proper oversight and accountability, it is mere lip service.”

More on Identity Theft:

This article originally appeared on BobSullivan.net.

Main image: woolzian; inset images courtesy BobSullivan.net

Comments on articles and responses to those comments are not provided or commissioned by a bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by a bank advertiser. It is not a bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

Please note that our comments are moderated, so it may take a little time before you see them on the page. Thanks for your patience.

Certain credit cards and other financial products mentioned in this and other articles on Credit.com News & Advice may also be offered through Credit.com product pages, and Credit.com will be compensated if our users apply for and ultimately sign up for any of these cards or products. However, this relationship does not result in any preferential editorial treatment.

Hello, Reader!

Thanks for checking out Credit.com. We hope you find the site and the journalism we produce useful. We wanted to take some time to tell you a bit about ourselves.

Our People

The Credit.com editorial team is staffed by a team of editors and reporters, each with many years of financial reporting experience. We’ve worked for places like the New York Times, American Banker, Frontline, TheStreet.com, Business Insider, ABC News, NBC News, CNBC and many others. We also employ a few freelancers and more than 50 contributors (these are typically subject matter experts from the worlds of finance, academia, politics, business and elsewhere).

Our Reporting

We take great pains to ensure that the articles, video and graphics you see on Credit.com are thoroughly reported and fact-checked. Each story is read by two separate editors, and we adhere to the highest editorial standards. We’re not perfect, however, and if you see something that you think is wrong, please email us at editorial team [at] credit [dot] com,

The Credit.com editorial team is committed to providing our readers and viewers with sound, well-reported and understandable information designed to inform and empower. We won’t tell you what to do. We will, however, do our best to explain the consequences of various actions, thereby arming you with the information you need to make decisions that are in your best interests. We also write about things relating to money and finance we think are interesting and want to share.

In addition to appearing on Credit.com, our articles are syndicated to dozens of other news sites. We have more than 100 partners, including MSN, ABC News, CBS News, Yahoo, Marketwatch, Scripps, Money Magazine and many others. This network operates similarly to the Associated Press or Reuters, except we focus almost exclusively on issues relating to personal finance. These are not advertorial or paid placements, rather we provide these articles to our partners in most cases for free. These relationships create more awareness of Credit.com in general and they result in more traffic to us as well.

Our Business Model

Credit.com’s journalism is largely supported by an e-commerce business model. Rather than rely on revenue from display ad impressions, Credit.com maintains a financial marketplace separate from its editorial pages. When someone navigates to those pages, and applies for a credit card, for example, Credit.com will get paid what is essentially a finder’s fee if that person ends up getting the card. That doesn’t mean, however, that our editorial decisions are informed by the products available in our marketplace. The editorial team chooses what to write about and how to write about it independently of the decisions and priorities of the business side of the company. In fact, we maintain a strict and important firewall between the editorial and business departments. Our mission as journalists is to serve the reader, not the advertiser. In that sense, we are no different from any other news organization that is supported by ad revenue.

Visitors to Credit.com are also able to register for a free Credit.com account, which gives them access to a tool called The Credit Report Card. This tool provides users with two free credit scores and a breakdown of the information in their Experian credit report, updated twice monthly. Again, this tool is entirely free, and we mention that frequently in our articles, because we think that it’s a good thing for users to have access to data like this. Separate from its educational value, there is also a business angle to the Credit Report Card. Registered users can be matched with products and services for which they are most likely to qualify. In other words, if you register and you find that your credit is less than stellar, Credit.com won’t recommend a high-end platinum credit card that requires an excellent credit score You’d likely get rejected, and that’s no good for you or Credit.com. You’d be no closer to getting a product you need, there’d be a wasted inquiry on your credit report, and Credit.com wouldn’t get paid. These are essentially what are commonly referred to as "targeted ads" in the world of the Internet. Despite all of this, however, even if you never apply for any product, the Credit Report Card will remain free, and none of this will impact how the editorial team reports on credit and credit scores.

Our Owners

Credit.com is owned by Progrexion Holdings Inc. which is the owner and administrator of a number of business related to credit and credit repair, including CreditRepair.com, and eFolks. In addition, Progrexion also provides services to Lexington Law Firm as a third party provider. Despite being owned by Progrexion, it is not the role of the Credit.com editorial team to advocate the use of the company’s other services. In articles, reporters may mention credit repair as an option, for example, but we’ll also be sure to note the various alternatives to that service. Furthermore, you may see ads for credit repair services on Credit.com, but the editorial team isn’t responsible for the creation or implementation of those ads, anymore than reporters for the New York Times or Washington Post are responsible for the ads on their sites.

Your Stories

Lastly, much of what we do is informed by our own experiences as well as the experiences of our readers. We want to tell your stories if you’re interested in sharing them. Please email us at story ideas [at] credit [dot] com with ideas or visit us on Facebook or Twitter.

Thanks for stopping by.

- The Credit.com Editorial Team