Turning the Tables on the Criminals

Government agencies can start winning the social media game to intercept and analyse criminal activity on social networks, but only through application of the right technologies, says Jason Goodwin, SAS

Tags: Big dataSASSocial Media
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Turning the Tables on the Criminals Social media has become a source of intelligence for law enforcement and government agencies, says Goodwin, but organisations struggle to deal with the volume of data.
By  Jason Goodwin Published  July 2, 2014

Social media usage is growing rapidly across the Middle East. A recent study by Analytics MENA found that Middle East internet users are rapidly adopting social media, with around 85% of respondents having at least one social media account while 61% have two or more. Research compiled by web application design and development company, Go-Gulf, shows that Facebook is far and away the most popular social network in the region, with 58 million users, around 18% of the Middle East’s total population.

In light of this growth, it is unsurprising that social media is today defining social attitudes throughout the region. Sites once seen as a means of communication are now a channel for group psychology powerful enough to overthrow governments, act as a forum for organised crime or a basis for extremist recruitment. In recent years, we have seen evidence across the region, with the ongoing events of the Arab Spring the key example.

Today, social media is being used to drive day-to-day criminal activity. Sites are widely used to leverage fraud and coordinate criminal gangs. This growing criminality has alerted the authorities about the need to recognise social media as an intelligence source.

Increasingly too, it’s not only the more established channels that are worrying the authorities, but messaging tools like WhatsApp that can also be used to coordinate crime and disorder.

Agencies are focused on finding a way to make use of the open source intelligence running over all of these systems. It’s a complex task. The ongoing growth of social networks and other messaging tools is in itself generating huge amounts of data.

The volume velocity and variety of data agencies need to deal with is increasing rapidly as a result, effectively creating a vast big data problem for agencies to deal with. Much of this data is unstructured and therefore not easy for users to collect or analyse, merely serving to add to the big data problem that they face.

Agencies can often get data out of social media, but do not have the resources to leverage it. Not only are there vast volumes to manage, but different languages and data types are used and of course social media has a language of its own. An inability to identify useful and relevant data from this vast big data store is therefore inevitably leading to missed opportunities for intelligence gathering and corroboration.

Nevertheless, agencies remain eager to rise to the big data challenge. The benefits of being able to use social media data to combat crime from a low-level to major criminal activity and terrorism are now high on law enforcement’s agenda.

Unfortunately, agency systems are often basic and processes time-consuming and resource intensive, meaning social media is not being exploited for intelligence to the levels the modern information age requires.

Looking Ahead
So, what is the solution? Technology has to be key in meeting the big data challenge; in helping sort through vast volumes of information generated in social media and focus in on the key pieces of relevant information associated with criminality.

Advanced analytics technology can help here in sifting out relevant information from the deluge of noise that big data generates. It can, for example, identify relevant content, sentiment, determine who is saying what to whom, measuring influence and pinpointing patterns of influence.

Specialised text analytics solutions use natural language processing to understand meaning in language, can cope with multiple languages and crucially understand text language.

These advanced capabilities are needed to derive a consistent view of meaning, content, reference points and intent. This helps agencies fight criminality by enabling them to gain a consistent view of what is being said about particular entities and to make meaningful comparisons between different postings. Furthermore lawful intercept of telephony and SMS data, another big data source, can also be fed into the same technology to provide further levels of corroboration.

Social media analytics can analyse big data to identify important topics and enable professionals to focus in on the content areas they are interested in. Crucially, it can automatically extract ‘entities’ — people, places and locations — and build linkages to understand relationships as well as context. Social network analysis can be used to understand the human networks behind the social media, how people are connected and the closeness of those connections. This enables agencies to identify and focus on key individuals to target and so utilise resources most effectively.

In addition, sentiment analytics can assess and monitor the sentiment within the text to flag changing attitudes that may signal a shift from words to action. Allowing the technology to do the monitoring, it frees resources to intervene when an increased threat is identified. This capability will enable professionals to cut out the ‘noise’ within social media and focus on the data that could provide valuable intelligence.

Making Sense of the Data
Agencies today don’t have the luxury of just increasing their resources to ensure social media is being appropriately monitored for criminality. They need to use existing resources more smartly by keeping staff focused on adding value to investigations rather than being bogged down, sifting through information. Most importantly, they need to use technology wisely to extract actionable intelligence from the big data generated in the online world and use it to help prevent crime and better protect the public. We are starting to see evidence that government and police forces across the region are beginning to address the issue.

Jason Goodwin is Director of the Public Security Division, EMEA, SAS.

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