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Why cops shouldn’t use social networking

Networks of "friends" on a social site

Networks of "friends" on a social site

In response to my question, “Do you think more LE don’t get on board w/ social media b/c they fear the inability to size ppl up as they would in person?” I got another response besides those from the previous entry:

@cmouser:
There are folks telling officers it not safe for them to do it…false claims posted about them or for them
I have 2 SRO’s that just got back from training and they were told that Twitter [Facebook] etc. are the worst things an officer can do
one of them deleted his accts due to this training.

This surprised me. What better way to connect with students than to reach them in their own social spaces away from school? So I found out the trainer’s name: Lt. Joe Laramie, commander of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force for the state of Missouri. Someone with a lot of experience online, in other words, who was not simply reacting to technological changes.

Parts of Lt. Laramie’s interview are also included in my article “Social Networking Officer Safety,” due out in Police & Security News in September. For the purposes of this blog, though, I want to focus on his input regarding school resource officers. Whether you agree with him or not, the points he raises are good ones, and should be discussed among administrators and officers alike.

Who’s reading your profile?

It is possible to get too caught up in social networking’s positive aspects. Naivete can lead to situations like the one NYPD Officer Vaughan Ettienne found himself in. This is, in part, because most people focus on the “social” aspect of social networking.

But Laramie, a 30-year law enforcement veteran who teaches school resource officers and vocational counselors a class on social networking, says law enforcement should focus more on the “networking” aspect. “You may be able to control the people you friend, but not the people they friend,” he explains, calling this a “pyramid” effect.

Even if you can control the people you friend—by “ignoring” requests from people with questionable content—you can’t control what existing friends post on their own pages. “Photos and blogs they post can reflect badly on you,” says Laramie. “And these materials are constantly being changed, so it’s impossible to enforce a ‘friend policy’”—following or unfollowing based on appropriateness.

This is true of everyone, but even more so for school resource officers. Laramie says SROs are susceptible to more problems than a regular patrol officer or detective would be, because of their closeness to middle and high school students. Such problems can include emotionally needy students with few boundaries; students who take for granted online interactions; and even students who intentionally target law enforcement officers or agencies.

In fact, Laramie likens an officer “friending” students online to a teacher leaving a cell phone on or in a desk. “The student can easily take the phone to the bathroom, send a suggestive text message or picture to another student, then put the teacher’s phone back. You can’t defend against that,” he explains, “but you can control it—by keeping the phone with you, not giving them access.”

This is the reason why Laramie’s Missouri ICAC Task Force Facebook page has an emblem rather than his photo on it. “It’s easy to take an officer’s official department photo and superimpose his or her face over that of someone wearing fewer clothes,” he says. He himself is featured in two YouTube videos—neither of which he posted. “They’re of a speech I gave, so I’m not embarrassed about them,” he says. “But I had no control over their posting. That’s why it’s important to search on your own name, see what’s being posted about you in the different environments.”

No privacy, no control

When Laramie teaches teens about social networks, he has them “write” just one way to reach them online on an imaginary business card. “Then I ask them if they would hand that to a stranger driving by their school,” he says. “They haven’t thought about that. There is a disconnect between their online world and the real world.”

Both teens and police officers mistakenly believe that making pages “private” will protect their information. However, says Laramie, “When teens argue this, I ask them if they’ve ever seen a site they didn’t have permission to be on,” says Laramie. “They often have—if they were with a friend who had permission.”

This can be a problem when that friend is someone unknown to, or even an enemy of, the user. “The two most misused words when it comes to social networks are ‘private’ and ‘friend,’” says Laramie, adding that he doesn’t know most of the “friends” on his task force page. So, while it’s possible to limit access to a site, nothing is ever truly private.

This problem is exacerbated by inadequate privacy protections on the social network sites themselves. A Cambridge University study published in July showed that 90 percent of sites required unnecessary information, such as birth date, for membership. Eighty percent did not protect sensitive data using standard encryption protocols, while 71 percent reserved the right to share user data with third parties.

Officers may also believe that anonymity will protect them, but can leave enough details that administrators, other officers, and even the public can figure out who they are. This has been the case for several well-known law enforcement blogs, deleted in recent years on pain of their authors’ termination.

The need for cyber ethics training

Police officers who are unaware of these pitfalls could be disastrous for a law enforcement agency. “Defense attorneys who do their homework will come after them,” Laramie says. “They’ll start out by asking whether a posting on a social site was the truth, or made up. And who wants to defend their bragging in court? But if they say they made something up, they’re subject to being impeached as a witness. And if they say it’s the truth, that opens the door to every inappropriate thing the attorney found.”

Laramie believes that training in cyber ethics must begin at the academy level. “Personal ethics is already taught, but there needs to be a cyber component to it,” Laramie says. “This generation is so used to the technology that they don’t think twice about what they are doing.”

For instance, says Laramie, “Teens don’t see what the big deal is about sending nude photos to each other or saying inappropriate things. They don’t understand that when adults do it at work, we get fired.”

Thus a student’s “harmless flirting” with her school resource officer could land him in hot water, as could her risque photo in her Facebook profile when they are connected as friends. “If a parent finds those things, it’s guilt by association,” says Laramie. “Even if the officer hasn’t been online in three days and had no idea the photos were posted.”

Balancing safety with usage

Professionally, Laramie says school resource officers and other investigators do need to know how social networking sites work. “I’m not sure all SROs understand it as well as they should,” he says. “Many are still struggling with how to deal with it. Some have very sophisticated knowledge, but others have no idea how to use it or communicate with it, or even how to use it as a search mechanism. They have to be able to get online and see what’s going on in the school, among that community.”

The challenge is in doing so without jeopardizing the relationship-building that community policing demands. Whether undercover (which most social networking sites discourage) or using their real names, Laramie says any communication on the officer’s part should be one-way only—no friend requests.

This flies in the face of social networking culture as well, which demands two-way communication. “Students can feel the officer is only there to spy on them,” says Laramie. “They already stay away from social networking sites their parents are on, and they’ll stay away from those the officer is on.”

Yet savvy SROs may take the opportunity to lead by example, encouraging prudence in posting content. As Larry Magid of SafeKids.com pointed out in a June blog entry:

Internet safety is more than just the absence of danger. It also includes finding ways to use technology for learning, collaboration, community building, political activism, self-help and reaching out to others…. [L]ike fences around swimming pools, the use of filters at home and school can’t protect them forever. That’s why we teach kids to swim. Not only does knowing how to swim help prevent drowning, it empowers them to thrive in the water instead of fearing it.

Likewise in police departments, where gripes among officers may offer administrators the chance to consider whether employee point of view is accurate. In the social web, companies monitor what customers are saying, whether good or bad, and use the feedback to build on the good and improve on the bad. Comcast, for instance, uses Twitter to great effect to connect with its customers, as does the Ford Motor Company and others.

“You have to protect your name, your identity, and your reputation because you own those for the rest of your life,” says Laramie. “But it isn’t possible to control your reputation totally, because it’s what other people think.”

Image: matmorrison via Flickr

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