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Social media could render covert policing 'impossible'

Not even police officers can hide due to online information and use of biometrics, says ex-AFP commissioner

Facebook has proven to be one of the biggest dangers in keeping undercover police officers safe due to applications such as facial recognition and photo tagging, according to a adjunct professor at ANU and Charles Sturt University.

Mick Keelty, a former Australian Federal Police (AFP) commissioner, told the audience at Security 2011 in Sydney that because of the convergence of a number of technologies including biometrics, undercover policing may be "impossible" in the future.

He explained that were safety risks associated with undercover policing if people could be identified online.

“You can’t just immerse an officer into a crime group; it takes up to seven years to get them into the right place [in the gang] where they can feed back the intelligence that you need," Keelty said.

"Than there is the cost of doing that such as when the AFP targets motorcycle gangs or when governments across the world have entered into agreements to place critical witnesses in prosecution matters in different parts of the world to hide them.”

Keelty is currently undertaking research into the policy implications of social networking for covert operations by police and security agencies.

He shared findings from a social networking survey conducted with the NSW Police, the AFP and other security agencies from December 2010 to February 2011.

"We surveyed them to try and measure the extent of exposure they already had in having their photos uploaded to the internet," he said.

"The results found that 90 per cent of female officers were using social media compared with 81 per cent of males."

The most popular site was Facebook, followed by Twitter. Forty seven per cent of those surveyed used social networking sites daily while another 24 per cent used them weekly. All respondents aged 26 years or younger had uploaded photos of themselves onto the internet.

“The thinking we had with this result means that the 16-year-olds of today who might become officers in the future have already been exposed.

"It’s too late [for them to take it down] because once it’s uploaded, it’s there forever.”

Of the people surveyed, 85 per cent had their photos uploaded on to the internet by another person.

Keelty said that until recently this has been a real problem because Facebook refused to remove photographs, but because of competition from Google+ it had started to remove photos at people’s request.

Alarmingly, 42 percent of respondents said it would be possible to identify their relationship with other people, including family and friends.

"If you have someone in the service who is trying to remain anonymous for whatever reason, it is still possible through other relationships to find them," Keelty said.

The results of the survey would be used to inform future policy guidelines within both state and federal police agencies.

Got a security tip-off? Contact Hamish Barwick at hamish_barwick at idg.com.au

Follow Hamish Barwick on Twitter: @HamishBarwick

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

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