In 2002, Steven Spielberg directed Tom Cruise in the movie Minority Report. Spoiler alert: the movie’s plot focused on a detective in a futuristic world where the police used the gifts of three people who could see into the future to stop crimes before they could happen. Fourteen years after that movie’s release, it seems that all Cruise’s character would have needed is some Internet savvy to find out whom he should be arresting.
Police agencies are turning to social media platforms to predict future crimes, as it is becoming increasingly prevalent for would-be criminals to thumb out a message on Facebook or Twitter that either directly indicates that they might commit a crime, or is a part of a pattern of messages that indicates that they might commit a crime.
Analyzing the Emerging Patterns
Dr. Sean Young, a behavioral psychologist at the University of California’s Institute for Prediction Technology and professor at UCLA’s medical school, analyzes data on social media, mobile device usage and online searches to show how these digital interactions can predict future events. The goal is to find how these daily interactions that happen millions of times per minute worldwide can be used to predict tragic events and possibly prevent them from occurring. According to Young, the data can predict events ranging from disease outbreaks to violent crime.1
One area of particular interest is the prevention of mass shootings, or at the very least, reducing the number of potential victims. As an example, Young points to the case of a troubled student at Seattle’s Marysville-Pilchuck High School. The student tweeted messages that implied he might harm himself and others. A month later, he killed himself and four others. In the midst of the attack, students and teachers used social media to identify the shooter and warn each other about his location. While the data may not have been able to prevent the attack, social media messages were instrumental in reducing the number of potential victims.
Are “Pre-Crime” Arrests to Become Reality?
Unlike the “pre-crime” arrests in Minority Report, this does not yet mean that we are at the level of arresting and sentencing people for crimes they have yet to commit. Nevertheless, in many ways, social media is already being used to bring potential criminal acts to a halt before they can occur. Whether for halting terrorist attacks from groups like ISIS or for disruption of street gang activities, law enforcement agencies have already embraced the technology as a way to monitor and intercept potential threats.
For example, the Brower Boys gang in Brooklyn, New York made the mistake of not knowing that the person whose Facebook friend request they accepted was a cop. Police officer Michael Rodrigues used Facebook to track the gang’s plans, and in the process, broke up a year-long string of burglaries and sent 14 members of the gang to jail.2
You Might Want to Delete That Tweet
Many social media platforms have privacy settings, but they cannot guarantee that unintended audiences will not see your message. That is why it is vital that you remember the number one rule about online communications: “The Internet’s not written in pencil… It’s written in ink.”3
Your social media messages can be used against you in a court of law, either as part of a civil or criminal case. Some examples include:
- Minors arrested for underage drinking as a result of posting selfies they took while drinking.
- A woman arrested after she posted photos of stolen items from a clothing and jewelry store.
- A 19-year-old bank robber posting a video on YouTube bragging about her latest heist.
- A teenager arrested for terrorist threats after sarcastically commenting that he would shoot up a kindergarten class as a result of an argument over an online video game.
The last one in particular is an example of a vital piece of advice: What you may consider humorous and witty might be taken out of context by others who do not fully understand the reason behind your message. Always remember that not everyone online shares your sense of humor, and your joke might be taken as a serious threat.
Contact the Criminal Defense Attorneys at Wallin & Klarich
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1. [Sean Young, “Social Media Will Help Predict Crime,” The New York Times, November 18, 2015, available at http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2015/11/18/can-predictive-policing-be-ethical-and-effective/social-media-will-help-predict-crime.]. href=”#ref1″>↩
2. [Jose Martinez, “Cop tracked Brooklyn gang Brower Boys by ‘friending’ them online,” The New York Post, May 31, 2012, available at http://nypost.com/2012/05/31/cop-tracked-brooklyn-gang-brower-boys-by-friending-them-online/.] href=”#ref2″>↩
3. [The Social Network (Columbia Pictures 2010).] href=”#ref3″>↩