UPDATE: After Arrest, Authorities Caution Against Crowdsourced Criminal Intelligence Analysis

During last week’s frenzied pursuit of suspects after the Boston Marathon bombings, we commented on the danger of attempting to crowdsource a criminal investigation. After Friday’s arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, new information on how law enforcement located the suspect has shed light on the process. Despite good intentions, intelligence analysis of this type is a poor fit for untrained amateurs. From the Washington Post:

[T]he social media revolution meant that the FBI and Boston authorities were under intense pressure to move even faster, because thousands of amateur sleuths were mimicking the official investigation, inspecting digital images of the crowd on Boylston Street and making their own often wildly irresponsible conclusions about who might be the bombers.

On an investigative forum of Reddit.com, since removed from the site, users compiled thousands of photos, studied them for suspicious backpacks and sent their favorite theories spinning out into the wider Internet.

“Find people carrying black bags,” wrote the Reddit forum’s unnamed moderator. “If they look suspicious, then post them. Then people will try and follow their movements using all the images.”

The moderator defended this strategy by arguing that “it’s been proven that a crowd of thousands can do things like this much quicker and better. . . . I’d take thousands of people over a select few very smart investigators any day.”

In addition to being almost universally wrong, the theories developed via social mediacomplicated the official investigation, according to law enforcement officials. Those officials said Saturday that the decision on Thursday to release photos of the two men in baseball caps was meant in part to limit the damage being done to people who were wrongly being targeted as suspects in the news media and on the Internet.

Fortunately, the suspect was apprehended and critiques of Reddit’s investigative techniques were swift and emphatic. But this could have easily gone much worse. This experience provides an example of where the wisdom of the crowd can be anything but wise.


NEW REPORT: Privacy and Missing Persons after Natural Disasters

priv_imgSeveral recent natural disasters have illustrated the need for humanitarian groups, volunteers and policymakers to understand privacy issues when searching for missing persons in the aftermath of these crises.

The Commons Lab and the Fordham Center on Law and Information Policy (CLIP) at Fordham Law School have teamed up on a new report looking at these legal and policy issues. The report, “Privacy and Missing Persons after Natural Disasters,” can be found online here.

From the press release:

The report offers a roadmap to the legal and policy issues surrounding privacy and missing persons following natural disasters. It provides strategies that humanitarian organizations, private sector organizations, volunteers and policymakers can pursue to help those affected by major natural disasters.  For example, the report recommends that the United States government exercise existing legal authority to support appropriate sharing of personal information about missing persons following natural disasters.  More broadly, the report recommends that those developing technologies to share information about missing persons implement design principles that carefully balance privacy consistent with existing legal obligations. The report also calls on privacy policy makers, legislators, and regulators to take steps to clarify how privacy rules apply to missing persons activities in identified key areas so that missing persons activities can proceed without the threat of legal liability. Continue reading “NEW REPORT: Privacy and Missing Persons after Natural Disasters”

The Boston Marathon Bombings and the Limitations of Crowdsourced Intelligence

In the wake of the horrific bombings at this week’s Boston Marathon, a complex web of agencies has been furiously searching for suspects. Intelligence analysis is already a challenge, and attempting to identify suspects at a massively popular public event is even more difficult. Eager to scoop this major story, news outlets have repeatedly “broke” pieces on suspects only to retract them quickly. The paucity of information has been exacerbated by dubious crowd-based efforts to aid the search.

Popular news aggregator Reddit quickly created a subReddit entitled “FindBostonBombers,” inviting community members to share information and photos of the scene before, during and after the explosions. While the forum contains multiple disclaimers discouraging racism and posting of personal information, the limitations of this type of analysis quickly became apparent. These well-intentioned efforts have led to multiple false positives, and major outlets who eagerly seized the opportunity to beat the rush have been forced to back off: the “person of interest” was in fact a local high school student. Continue reading “The Boston Marathon Bombings and the Limitations of Crowdsourced Intelligence”

New Tech Challenge: Can Technology Can Be Used to Stop Atrocities?

If you think so, the U.S. Agency for International Development and Humanity United want to hear from you. The groups have announced a competition for people looking to apply technology to the prevention of atrocities around the world. And it’s not too late to get involved. Here is a March 6 statement with some more detail:

Despite a global effort to prevent atrocities including genocide, ethnic cleansing and mass rape, millions remain at risk. In an effort to combat future atrocities, today the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and Humanity United launched the second and final round of the Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention and competition, an innovative approach to developing new ways to combat and prevent the worst human rights violations.

The Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention encourages individuals, groups and organizations to apply technology-based solutions to the most significant challenges surrounding atrocity prevention. Submitted in the form of prototypes or concept papers, proposals are reviewed by a prestigious panel of judges comprised of human rights and technology experts and U.S. government leaders. Winners receive cash prizes. Humanity United and USAID will also explore the possibility of piloting and scaling the most promising innovations. Continue reading “New Tech Challenge: Can Technology Can Be Used to Stop Atrocities?”

Tweeting Up a Storm

Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 25, 2012
Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 25, 2012

We are inundated daily with stories from the news media about the possible impact social media like Facebook and Twitter will have on our lives. When a storm like Hurricane Sandy hits the East Coast, can this technology actually help to save lives and reduce catastrophic damages? It’s possible.

For instance, mobile devices could allow emergency responders, affected communities, and volunteers to rapidly collect and share information as a disaster unfolds. Photos and videos provided through social media could help officials determine where people are located, assess the responses and needs of affected communities—such as water, food, shelter, power and medical care—and alert responders and citizens to changing conditions.

At least that is the promise. When Hurricane Irene barreled across the Eastern seaboard in August 2011, many in the news media cited it as a pivotal moment for social media for disasters. But research we conducted on the use of social media during Irene suggests otherwise. While some emergency management departments launched new social media outreach strategies during the storm, particularly to push information out to the public, many did not change their practices radically and overall use of the technology varied. Continue reading “Tweeting Up a Storm”

Calling for “Backup” – Indemnification for Digital Volunteers

Editor’s note: This guest blog is by Edward S. Robson, Esq.

In the past I have written about the tort liability that digital volunteers face when making responses.  In addition to a number of other strategies, one method for reducing liability is to obtain indemnification from the governmental agency or NGO requesting the services of the digital volunteers.

First, a few words about indemnification: This means to require a requestor to pay any expenses or awards associated with the claims brought against digital volunteers as a result of their work for the requesting party.  If a member of a digital volunteer group negligently released information causing a disaster victim to be injured, the requesting agency would be contractually required to pay attorney’s fees incurred in defense, or any awards.  An indemnification agreement would not necessarily cover all conduct of digital volunteers, including acts of gross negligence or recklessness.

To obtain indemnification, groups need an agreement with the party requesting service.  The agreement need not be actively negotiated but could be contained in an online activation request.  The acceptance of terms and conditions, including acceptance of indemnification, would be a prerequisite for submission of an activation request.

Many groups are developing activation protocols or criteria for determining which calls for assistance they will answer.  The willingness of a requestor to indemnify a group and its members seems a logical criterion for separating the sometimes overwhelming requests for help.  It could provide a layer of confidence for digital volunteers and encourage action. Continue reading “Calling for “Backup” – Indemnification for Digital Volunteers”

Hurricane Sandy and Crisismapping

As Hurricane Sandy approached the East Coast this weekend, efforts were already underway to allow the mapping of geographically referenced data. A developing trend in disaster management is to allow members of the public to produce data related to their needs and location, to map disaster-affected areas, and to process the data that’s produced. This “crowdsourcing” relies on mapping platforms such as Ushahidi, Google.org’s CrisisMaps, and OpenStreetMap, but there are many such examples.

Several hours before Sandy made landfall on Oct. 29, many of these kinds of platforms were set up and ready to be used, each covering a different component of the overall response. Coordination came from Hurricane Hackers, a loose coalition that formed in the run-up to the storm. This group and many volunteers assembled a list of different crisis maps in use and different ideas and areas to which volunteers could contribute. Crisis maps were established for diverse aspects of disaster response, including shelters and evacuation zones and communications network outages, and efforts are underway to engage volunteers in the post-hurricane rebuilding.

Social media was a prominent dimension of data production. The number of Sandy-related tweets posted to Twitter was astounding, with 695,000 posted before 11:00AM on Monday, and reaching 3,200 per minute at one point. Instagram was also a documenting tool of choice by the public, with 10 photos per second being posted at the peak of the storm. Additionally, many citizens were using LiveStream to broadcast their observations in real time. With this amount of data being produced, visualization becomes a challenge; one solution for visualization and analysis is the Tweak the Tweet project. Continue reading “Hurricane Sandy and Crisismapping”

EVENT: International Disasters Charter: Introduction, Initial Issues and Experiences

Editors note: This event is scheduled for Nov. 30, 2012 from noon to 1 pm.

The Commons Lab of the Science and Technology Innovation Program welcomes Joanne Irene Gabrynowicz, Director, National Center for Remote Sensing, Air and Space Law, University of Missisippi School of Law and Research Professor of Law.

The Charter on Cooperation to Achieve the Coordinated Use of Space Facilities in the Event of Natural or Technological Disasters (Disasters Charter) provides for the voluntary sharing of satellite imagery in the event of major disasters. Prof. Gabrynowicz will address the contents, structure, and status of the Charter, and highlight its strengths and weaknesses with a focus on how it could develop in the future. She also will discuss data access and sharing issues.

When: Friday, November 30, 12:00 PM to 1:00 PM EST

Where: 6th Floor Board Room

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center

One Woodrow Wilson Plaza
1300 Pennsylvania Ave, NW
Washington, DC 20004
(Near Federal Triangle or Metro Center Metros)

This meeting is free and open to the public. Allow time for routine security procedures. A photo ID is required for entry. For more time and to RSVP, please visit: http://www.wilsoncenter.org/event/international-disasters-charter-introduction-initial-issues-and-experiences

This event is co-hosted by the Commons Lab of the Science and Technology Innnovation Program, Woodrow Wilson Center, and the National Center for Remote Sensing, Air and Space Law, University of Mississippi School of Law.An archived video will be posted within a week of the event.Disclaimer: The materials on this website do not constitute legal advise. This event and presentation is not intended to create an attorney-client relationship by offering this information, and anyone’s review of the information shall not be deemed to reate such a relationship. You should consult your own attorney if you have a legal matter requiring attention. Also, nothing on this sie creates an express or implied contract.

WEBCAST: Connecting Grassroots to Government for Disaster Management

On behalf of the Commons Lab of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (The Wilson Center), the National Alliance for Public Safety GIS Foundation, the International Association for Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management, ESRI, TechChange, NetHope, and Project EPIC, we are honored to invite you to participate in a LIVE WEBCAST of the policy roundtable “Connecting Grassroots to Government for Disaster Management.”

Live Webcast

Unfortunately, the workshop itself is now full, but we will be making the majority of the panel discussions available live over the web from the Wilson Center webpage on:

Click on these links above to watch the live webcasts and to download copies of the agenda and background materials.

Social Media Engagement

In addition, we had so much fun with TechChange helping us with our last event (Crowdsourcing and USAID Development Credit Loans) that we’ve asked them to facilitate the social media engagement for two keynote sessons:

To watch the live webcasts of these two keynotes and submit your comments and questions:

  • Click on the TechChange Keynote links above.
  • Follow the live webcast discussion on Twitter using hashtag: #DG2G
  • You also can email your questions for the panelists before and during the live webcast: DG2G [at] TechChange [dot] org

Continue reading “WEBCAST: Connecting Grassroots to Government for Disaster Management”

Announcing the Commons Lab Zotero Library

The Commons Lab has made available our library of documents and citations on the popular open-source citation management system Zotero. This library is a tagged, searchable list that makes available full bibliographical information, and downloadable full text editions of publicly available documents.

The library can be accessed here: https://www.zotero.org/groups/82887/items

We hope this is a useful resource. The Commons Lab is on the lookout for more resources concerning the crowdsourcing technology and policy, and is accepting submissions for entry into the library. Please get in touch at commonslab@wilsoncenter.org with any suggestions.