Morally secure? The key ethical challenges of social media use in public security

As we have seen in our previous blogs, social media have changed our lives. The platforms can facilitate communication, interaction, and participation on an unprecedented scale. They help public security providers to engage with the public to increase legitimacy and trust and to deliver security more effectively and efficiently. However, all that glitters is not necessarily gold and social media has both bad and ugly sides which we need to understand. The team has been closely examining the ethical and legal issues arising in connection with the use of social media in a public security context. In this blog we outline the key ethical challenges and in our next blog we explore the legal dimensions.

As previously highlighted, social media performs a range of functions for law enforcement agencies, their partners and citizens. It has become a valuable source of intelligence and a powerful means of communication with the wider community. For example, police increasingly use social media as a means of improving and maintaining good public relations and whilst this enhances our general security it raises ethical concerns. Good public relations are a positive side-effect of fair and effective policing, but should not become an end in themselves for police nor should it divert resources from the reduction or prevention of crime. A recent One question that arises is to what extent does the increasing adoption of social media for public relations involve a blurring of the role of police? And in doing so, is there a risk of establishing relationships that are too close and result in the sharing of inappropriate operational information?

It is also clear that social media has provided a new source of intelligence and information for Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs) in their operations. Information received from citizens via these platforms can be invaluable in predicting, managing, investigating and better policing a range of crimes, incidents and events. However, as with offline information the police have a duty to assess the value and accuracy of any intelligence obtained online. Identifying credible information from rumours and speculation is increasingly difficult. There are real risks around criminalizing innocent people. For example, as the crowdsourced misidentification of suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013 illustrates, the verification and spread of misinformation can result in unwarranted suspicion being visited on innocent people. Even when information is correct, its widespread sharing on social media can increase public awareness of accusations and, in consequence, the risk of unfair trials. An American police department’s announcement of an intention to tweet images of men soliciting prostitutes caused controversy for precisely this reason. Furthermore, public attitudes are shaped by expectations and social media can artificially inflate both. Any gap between public expectations of policing online and the reality when it is exposed can undermine the efforts of LEAs, as was illustrated by the notorious case of the NYPD’s promotion of its Twitter hashtag, which was promptly used by members of the public to post images of police brutality.

Therefore there are critical questions for the developers of social media technologies. Inaccurate or incomplete information and the problematic inferences about people’s criminality that follow can result in disproportionate monitoring or even unfair criminalization. Monitoring for intelligence-gathering and monitoring for criminal investigation should be distinguished and regulated accordingly. It is therefore important that we address how these tools can address risks of bias, such as in the patterns of language that it flags as suspicious and what safeguards can be built in to prevent their misuse. In practice there may be a tension between the duty to secure public order and the duty to protect freedom of expression and association and this poses a challenge to local authorities, who must ensure that public order responses do not interfere with these democratic rights any more than is necessary. In a recent example from the USA, responses to freedom of information requests have revealed that data mining companies had contracts to provide police forces with data from Twitter, Instagram and Facebook that was used to monitor and track protest groups, including the Black Lives Matter campaign. The American Civil Liberties Union has objected to these contracts, citing the self-professed commitment of companies like Twitter to providing spaces where genuine freedom of expression can be exercised.

These issues and more will be discussed by a range of stakeholders at project workshops and in subsequent reports produced by our ethicists. If there’s an issue you think we should tackle, join our ongoing conversation: tweet us at @media4sec using the hashtag #media4sec and join our LinkedIn group to comment on this and other articles and discussions. You can download a copy of the full report on the ethical and legal dimensions of social media use in public security from our publications page.

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The MEDI@4SEC Team