Everyday security: social media to communicate, gather intelligence and counter crime

Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs), governments and police forces use social media in their day-to-day activities as a direct channel for communicating with the public. They use these platforms also to maintain their reputation and accountability to citizens. Agencies turn to social media to report success, provide reassurance, promote community  activities and deliver statements. Over time, police forces and other security providers have understood the importance of social media in times when the internet and communicating have become indispensable in daily life. Social media has become a tool to support security providers in the daily management of public security, in other words in preventing and responding to offences committed in public spaces that threaten the actual or perceived security of the community in its daily life.


Community policing can be strengthened through social media by enabling security actors, mainly police, to quickly contact citizens (appeal  for information, send information instantaneously, and interact with a range of civil society groups, as well as providing a monitoring function). Better communication can thus enable an ‘active citizenship’, which enhances effective community policing. In this situation, citizens are better able to help in reducing crime and disorder by providing information and improving security strategies by sharing their ideas on how to solve the problems of their community.

Social media make police services more accessible to community members. The two-way engagement with the public is one of their tangible benefits. In stimulating engagement between police and community, social media add legitimacy and knowledge to many police tasks. They also offer a great opportunity to reach target groups that are traditionally hard to reach, e.g. youngsters or ethnic minorities.

Thanks to its communication strategy on Twitter, the National Police of Spain is one of the most popular institutions in the country. Created in March 2009, @policia now has more than 2.74 million followers. In the sole year 2012, the number of followers was multiplied by nine thanks to the revamping of the force’s communication strategy driven by the new management team. In particular, they decided to better use the particular codes of internet and social media communication. They also started to use Twitter as a tool to improve security, notably to disseminate calls for evidence.

Nevertheless, there are also shortcomings in this two-way communication. During the Paris deadly attacks in January 2015, the French Police asked people to stop sharing pictures of the Bataclan events out of respect for the victims. Moreover, a French journalist and a former intelligence service professional were found  guilty of sharing the identity of the alleged attackers, the Kouachi brothers, on Facebook and Twitter at around 9pm the night of the attack. The French Police issued a call for evidence several hours later, at 3am the following morning, and said these previous posts had undermined their chances of surprising the assailants.

The recent massive increase in social media use has drastically transformed people’s communication and information habits, providing authorities with new intelligence sources and platforms for communication. Nowadays, social media are not only used by security providers to communicate with citizens but also to improve their policing activity.


LEAs are now using social media analysis to stop crime before it happens. Predictive policing is an area of  intelligence focused on what is likely to occur. By using this tactic, police can identify a suspect’s social network and map out the flows of information between various people. Police can use data from a wide variety of social media to come up with estimates on likely phenomena, e.g. where gun violence could occur, where a serial burglar is likely to commit his next crime, and which individuals a suspect is likely to contact for help.

Twitter is one of the most used and visited network in the world. It is a tool to obtain information and real time information, including geo-localisation which provides further details. This is key for predictive models. Through text identification and geo-localisation, researchers from the University of Virginia designed a crime prediction model. Thanks to the data collected on Twitter, improvements have been made on 19 types of crime out of a total of 25 included in the survey. Even if this model cannot predict the future – as described in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report  the tool aims to better target police action geographically. By analysing people’s Twitter posts and the information on past crimes, it is possible to detect trends and map out the areas of a given city where crime is concentrated.

Enforcement purposes

National police forces allocate a growing part of their staff and resources on investigations in and on the digital world, whilst at a local level police officers are being trained to ‘keep their eyes and ears open’ online. A challenge for investigation is to obtain data from the different social media networks, which have different methods of sharing (or not sharing) data with the police.

Several tools exist to help people get involved in crime investigation. In France, the “Alerte enlèvement” (kidnap alert) device, created in 2006 and inspired by the American “Amber alert” device, allows people to share information and contact LEAs to find people, especially youngsters, who have disappeared. French authorities have concluded an agreement with more than 20 internet partners including Facebook to promote this alert when needed. Europol has also launched a website that compiles criminal profiles to gather intelligence and stop them. In Spain, the National Police has created a website to report crime more easily.

As will be discussed during the workshop in Barcelona (14 November 2017), social media do improve public security and community policing. Nevertheless, their use also raises issues and challenges, notably about individual liberties and other ethical questions.  An important issue for LEAs and other security providers, the use of social media for everyday security raises key questions that we will discuss during the workshop:

  • How do LEAs and other security actors use social media, as a tool or as a resource for gathering information, to maintain everyday security?
  • How can LEAs and other security actors ensure that their actions represent a fair balance between the need to achieve security and the respect of individual rights and privacy?
  • How can social media integrate existing data collection methods to prevent crime?
  • In times of smart cities, can information collected from open platforms created with the purpose of making daily urban life easier also be used for daily security purposes?
  • How do social media change the relationship between police and citizens?
  • How can professional cultures and practices be modified to meet the challenges and opportunities of social media?

The Everyday security workshop in Barcelona will be an opportunity to discuss the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities of social media for public security providers and citizens.

Places at this workshop are limited. If you are interested in applying for a place please complete the application form on the workshop page clearly outlining your professional experience in this area and the reasons why you wish to attend the workshop. The deadline for applications is Friday 15th September.


Pilar de la Torre



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