Using Social Media and Social Network Analysis in Law Enforcement

Creating a Research Agenda, Including Business Cases, Protections, and Technology Needs

by John S. Hollywood, Michael J. D. Vermeer, Dulani Woods, Sean E. Goodison, Brian A. Jackson

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Research Questions

  1. How should social media data and social network analysis be used in law enforcement?
  2. What security, privacy, and civil rights protections should be in place to ensure the appropriate and sustainable application of these technologies in law enforcement?
  3. What needs does law enforcement have with respect to social media and social network analysis?

In April 2017, the National Institute of Justice convened an expert panel to identify high-priority needs for law enforcement's use of social media and social network analysis.

The panel characterized business cases for employing social media and social network analysis in law enforcement, including monitoring for short-term safety threats in postings; identifying those at high risk of involvement in violence, either acutely or chronically; and investigating specific crimes and organized crime networks. The panel also specified a core case not to do: monitoring of First Amendment–protected activity for vague purposes.

The panel next specified a framework for providing computer security, privacy, and civil rights protections when employing these types of analysis. The framework includes data protections for ensuring legal backings and information security; analytic protections for ensuring protection of findings, legal backing, and equitable justice outcomes; and protections on enforcement actions to ensure consistent and equitable actions and outcomes.

Finally, the panel identified and prioritized needs for innovation related to social media and social network analysis. The first part of the resulting innovation agenda concerns developing policies and strategies, including best practices for transparency and collaborative decisionmaking with communities, as well as model policies. The second part is technical development, starting with assessing current tools and how they might be better tailored to law enforcement. The third part concerns law enforcement–specific training, starting with assessing gaps in current training. Training on legal issues is a short-term priority. The final part is creation of a help desk to help law enforcement agencies navigate requests to social media companies and interpret the resulting data.

Key Findings

Business cases for social media and social network analysis

  • The panel discussed five core business cases for employing social media and social network analysis in law enforcement: monitoring for activity indicating short-term safety threats in postings, and communicating responses as needed; identifying those at high risk for involvement in violence; actively monitoring the high-risk to see whether violence may be imminent; investigating organized crime networks; and investigating specific crimes.
  • The panel also discussed one core case not to do: monitoring First Amendment–protected activity for vague or unspecified purposes.

Core security, privacy, and civil rights protections

  • Data protections relate primarily to documenting procedures and policies, and having protections for, data searches and collections.
  • Analysis protections provide a common set of policies and procedures needed for the deployment and use of analytic tools drawing on social media and other personal communications data.
  • Action protections ensure both that policing practices are not distorted and that both enforcement and social service actions are employed consistently and equitably.

An innovation agenda for social media analysis and social network analysis in law enforcement

  • The first part of the expert panel's innovation agenda is to support working with communities to develop policies and strategies for using social media and social network analysis.
  • The second part is technical research on law enforcement–specific social media and social network analysis.
  • The third part is supporting law enforcement–specific training on social media and social network analysis.
  • The final part is creation of a help desk to help law enforcement agencies navigate requests to social media companies.

The research described in this report was conducted by the Justice Policy Program within RAND Justice, Infrastructure, and Environment.

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