Russell Hebets Aug. 31, 2011

Is Big Brother watching? Should he be? The advent of the internet has led to innumerable opportunities for the would-be criminal, from identity theft to hacked bank accounts. The latest emerging criminal opportunity taps into the future of the internet: social networking. This is the same social networking that lets you catch up with your high school friend who you haven’t heard from since 10th grade home economics class. It’s also the same social networking that gave wings to the Arab Spring which has so far toppled dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Social media is continuing its evolution and is now facilitating criminal organization with little or no advance preparation. In Maryland a recent flash mob, organized on social networking sites, robbed a 7-11 convenience store while the clerk looked on helplessly. There have been social media inspired beatings in Philly and swarms of teens charging buses and robbing passengers in Chicago. Law enforcement clearly needs to address these crimes, but what tools should be in their toolbox?

Monitoring Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites for potential criminal activity is an obvious answer but an ineffective one. The cost and manpower to randomly troll these sites versus the chances of stumbling upon a criminal conspiracy makes it a losing proposition. Facing the spate of flash mobs in Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter recently extended a 9 p.m. curfew for minors under the age of 18. While this policy may have some limited success in preventing late-night teen crime it only addresses the most superficial of symptoms without disrupting the underlying ability to organize criminally. In San Francisco the local transportation authority, BART, turned off cell phone service in response to a recent planned protest. This action has been compared to Iran’s recent authoritarian actions in response to pro-democracy demonstrations there and treads dangerously close to outright denial of the 1st Amendment rights of all Americans.

Social media is constantly changing and the legal system’s reaction to social media inspired crime needs to react just as quickly. Whether that means new laws, harsher sentences, or more police intrusion into the on-line lives of Americans remains to be seen. One thing is certain: social media is here to stay, and we’ll have to see whether Big Brother comes knocking on our door in the days to come.