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Policymakers: do not ignore the security uses of social media

Euro-View: Justin Crump on Social Media


Social media is taking on an ever more important role in all aspects of human interaction, as I’m sure readers are well aware.

As someone who has been working in the field of open source intelligence for a number of years, this has without doubt been the biggest upheaval since the internet first appeared and it is driving a similar step change in potential. Yet all too often I find myself talking to audiences consisting of policemen or corporate security personnel who – although they acknowledge the change that social media has brought about – are nonetheless keen to restrict its internal usage, or exercise strict controls in the workplace.

There are admirable reasons for this and social media is certainly a threat vector. In fact in a presentation at the London Fraud Forum event in early October 2012 I ran through a whole range of issues of potential concern. And yet my conclusion remained that restricting social media was ultimately a futile course, akin to the days (not so long ago!) when the internet was restricted in the workplace and email was just for business. How foolish that seems now, and yet arguably here we are again, at a time when some universities have already stopped giving out email addresses in favour of tools that allow much more connectivity and sharing.

In the security environment there has been a lot of focus on social media at the strategic level over the last year or two, particularly following the Arab Spring, but I am concerned of how it is (not) being embraced at the operational level. In my view, a police officer walking the street now – or a corporate security guard – is not fully aware of his or her surroundings if the social media space isn’t being covered. In effect, I believe that there is a “digital layer” that lies beyond what we see with our eyes and hear with our ears, and this has in a very real way become an integral part of “the street” as we once conceptualised it.

I have seen this vividly for myself; not so long ago I was caught in a bomb alert in Winchester, a lovely cathedral city in the south of England, where such things are – thankfully –somewhat unusual. I could find out nothing from people on the ground or on the edge of the police cordon. As an experiment I turned to Twitter and suddenly I had a whole world of relevant information at my fingertips. I was able to find out precisely what had happened, where, which roads were closed, where the bomb disposal team were, and some other information regarding possible motives (related to a court case that was ongoing). I shouldn’t have been surprised; my company has been working in this field for a while and one of our biggest projects is working to support the whole US mall and retail sector by developing risk awareness from social media. As part of this we conduct protective monitoring of malls, and even from thousands of miles away we can have deep, immediate and almost intimate awareness of much of what is going on. Without access to and understanding of social media at the most basic level, a security operative is blind to what is not right in front of them.

To take a hypothetical example, imagine that you are in a police car responding to an emergency call about a suspicious package. You have the information that has been imparted from one telephone call (and perhaps some CCTV feed, if you’re lucky). So far so good. But in the time it took to record the details from the call and for the dispatcher to task you, people will already have been posting on the event, possibly including pictures and relevant details. How much better prepared could you be if that feed could be sent to you? In the era of modern communication devices, and with the US Armed Forces for example just having bought an iPhone for every member, there’s little excuse not to be “plugged in” to the information layer – tactically, operationally and strategically. In other words we should be encouraging security personnel to use social media and viewing it as an opportunity rather than a threat, if only in terms of drawing out understanding.

Talking of opportunity brings me to my last point, which regards corporate security. It’s repeatedly been shown that effective social media monitoring conducted in line with the principles of intelligence tends to far outperform the sorts of solutions being peddled by marketing and brand awareness companies. Some of the mall companies we work with have in fact now shifted significant budgets from their marketing function to security in order to carry out brand protection, a welcome step and a significant boost to “the business of resilience” in terms of positioning. Yet one more reason why social media needs to be embraced and operationalised, rather than being treated with suspicion or purely as a strategic asset.

     Justin Crump is CEO at Sibylline Ltd based in the UK. He can be contacted at justin.crump@sibylline.co.uk

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