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Benefits and Risks of Public Safety Agencies Using Social Media

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The Microsoft Worldwide Public Safety Symposium, held at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Wash. on March 13-15, was an opportunity to hear some of the biggest challenges facing public safety agencies today. One of the panel sessions focused on the challenges of public safety agencies effectively using social media platforms to monitor, as well as communicate with, the public.

Senior Sergeant Neil Macrae of the New Zealand Police discussed how his agency used social media during the 2011 Rugby World Cup last year, which was the largest police operation his agency had ever hosted. Macrae acknowledged that the threat level during the six-week event was extremely high. The Rugby World Cup brought more than 100,000 spectators into New Zealand, who of course, brought their smart devices with them. The agency decided they needed to monitor social media and pull what they could from it to use as actionable intelligence. During the Rugby World Cup there were more than 20 million Tweets alone.

The agency developed a program with NC4 that allowed them to track Tweets, YouTube and Flickr posts and search keywords or conversation topics as well as monitor and identify issues happening during the event. One of the lessons learned by the agency was that “youths don’t switch on TV or read the Gazette,” he said. “To be involved with folks of a certain age, you need to be there, social media is a space we need to be in.”

Nancy Kolb with International Association of Chiefs of Police’s Center for Social Media, told the audience about the struggles that police departments are having adapting to social media. Because of that issue, the IACP has created the Center for Social Media where agencies can learn about community engaging, soliciting tips from the public, intelligence gathering, investigations and more. It is important for all police departments to develop policies around social media so officers can be trained how to use social media as a public officers, but also what the expectations are of them in their personal lives.

Lastly, Tim Pippard director of Defense, Security and Risk Consulting for IHS, discussed the intelligence value of social media. He also talked about how police forces have used social media to generate public support for their operations. He cited the example of the Manchester Police posting all of their 9-1-1 emergency calls on Twitter, which was designed to generate more awareness in the public about the type of work load and events the police face. It was deemed a success by many and an example of how to use social media to influence public support.

However, social media can pose a major security risk for agencies as well. Pippard cited a recent case where an army officer took a picture of a new fleet of Apache helicopters that arrived in Iraq and posted it online. The officer didn’t realize the photo contained GPS “geotags,” which allowed insurgents to pinpoint and destroy four of the Apache helicopters in a mortar attack, according to this article.

It’s important for agencies to realize that social media should never be taken as fact, but it’s a great tool and a great starting point to look into other intelligence that they might be able to gather, said Nancy Kolb with IACP.

Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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