Solving Crime with SocialMedia and Other Edge Networks 

Did you know that you and I are members of an edge network? Our daily, consumer-grade version of a distributed network, Social Media, is ubiquitous in modern life. We share our opinions, our #goals, our #food. But most importantly, we crowdsource: we read, respond and react to what others put out there. We have created a social information highway, in which each of us is a node. While we consume and output information independently, like all distributed systems, we create significance in aggregate.  

Law enforcement agencies, in particular, have noticed this sort of organic network can tangibly improve public safety. Our constant snapping, tweeting and video-sharing have already enhanced crime prevention. Social media and the rise of other edge networks have also resulted in quicker arrests of criminal suspects

This sort of data aggregation is actually part of a much wider investment by municipalities and law enforcement in edge/distributed networks and technology. Whether it’s networks of connected personal devices (like your fitness watch) or industrial-scale sensors, the idea is simple – each piece of information or data on its own might not seem immediately significant. However, when the information is parsed holistically, case-cracking patterns emerge. 

For example, more than 150 US cities have invested in some form of edge network mining (social media, IoT etc.)  to aid law enforcement, according to this 2017 Brennan Center for Justice map. In 2018, the Department of Homeland Security published this white paper as part of what it calls its “community oriented policing services.” And the Department of Justice commissioned this 2018 report on the topic by the RAND Corporation, with the panel identifying the high need for innovationrelated to social network analysis. 

Officials keep returning to these new high-tech tools because their power is undeniable. As our devices and networks become ever more connected, the aggregated data can help law enforcement solve or prevent crimes more quickly. 

In Manteca, California, the sharing of a 2018 surveillance video led to the arrest of a teenager later convicted of assaulting an elderly man. This convinced the city to invest heavily in more portable, self-powered surveillance technology to cover its public spaces. 

This example highlights an interesting possibility: Multi-sensor crime prevention. What if each “node” were multi-dimensional — networks of cameras, acoustic sensors to detect sounds like gunshots and license plate readers — giving you several complementary pieces of information for a more complete picture? Multi-sensor platforms exist and are gaining traction; the ability to draw a comprehensive portrait from different, information-rich data streams could give first responders and investigators a huge leg-up. 

If it becomes possible for law enforcement to access that kind of data and make those connections quickly, then officers could track down wrong-doers in record time. It would bring a whole new meaning to the term, “community policing.”

This is a collaborative process amongst all public safety stakeholders. Obviously, we’d need to think carefully about protecting privacy, a hallmark of any good public safety policy. The RAND report outlines the many policy needs and procedures in detail. 

Utilizing edge networks to promote public safety is already underway in many departments across the country, but there is still an immense opportunity for growth. The effort to deploy diverse technological and procedural solutions seems likely to continue when the pay-offs have the potential to be so great. 


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