On patrol in social networks
Citizens have long been interested in criminal cases and keen to help the police solve them. What’s new is that people are increasingly combining these activities with the opportunities offered by digital technologies. Social media empowers anyone to get involved in a way that, in the past, was typically confined to the police or other public security organizations.
As part of the European research project MEDI@4SEC, Fraunhofer IAO is now working together with other European organizations to examine how this “do-it-yourself policing” phenomenon will evolve in the future. A systematic analysis has already indicated that citizens are taking on new relevance in very different ways as protagonists in the realm of public security – especially in places where coverage by law enforcement agencies is patchy or non-existent.
“Citizens have the digital know-how and spare time that the police often lack,” says IAO researcher Sebastian Denef, who is coordinating the topic in the research project.
Do-it-yourself policing is the new reality
Many people are already using special apps to collect and analyze information and, where necessary, organize emergency assistance themselves. Examples include successful private Facebook searches for stolen bicycles and the use of neighborhood WhatsApp groups to prevent burglaries. Citizens are also using social media to carry out independent investigations into terror attacks, such as the one that took place in Berlin in December 2016.
Yet citizens’ activities can also have negative consequences, says Denef, noting how baseless suspicions, the unchecked distribution of information, and self-administered justice can endanger public safety and, in the worst case, even put people’s lives at risk. To address these aspects, the project team is also focusing their investigations on sociological and ethical issues.
Digital opportunities often remain untapped
Results from an initial project assessment highlight how police in the Netherlands have taken on a particularly pioneering role in comparison to their international colleagues, re-defining the relationship between citizens and the police for the digital era.
“Nowhere do police make such proactive use of digital media to involve citizens and perceive them so clearly as co-creators of security as in the Netherlands,” says Denef. In other countries this level of interaction is often prevented by legal constraints. Digital opportunities are also largely thwarted by existing organizational cultures and people’s perception of themselves and their roles. What’s clear is that organizations that are responsible for security will need to increasingly integrate digital tools as a key part of their standard repertoire in the future – something that is still not happening in many countries, including Germany.
The MEDI@4SEC project will be addressing this challenge over the next two years and promoting dialog with a range of stakeholders. The team publishes up-to-date results on their project web page and via their social media accounts on LinkedIn and Twitter (@media4sec). Anyone interested in the topic can use this platform to discuss the challenges and opportunities of digital media in the realm of public security.
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