Crowdsourcing Law Enforcement

from the first-10-callers-to-identify-this-fugitive... dept

In a move that seems calculated to evoke the film adaptation of 1984, the FBI has announced a plan to begin using some 150 Clear Channel digital billboards in major American cities to show national security alerts, information about recent crimes, and photographs of fugitive criminals and missing persons, all with real-time updates.

A pilot billboard in Philadelphia has already helped to capture several wanted criminals, and a spokesman for the outdoor advertising industry suggests that these kinds of publicity tactics can be as useful at demoralizing criminals as they are at generating tips:

"What law enforcement tells us is it contributes to an environment where the criminal feels they have no where to go. A lot of times they end up just giving up."

In a way, the surprising thing is that law enforcement officials hadn't previously taken such visible steps to make use of the distributed eyes and ears of ordinary citizens. The problem, of course, is that publicity can also generate lots of time-consuming false leads. An advertisement currently ubiquitous on New York subways applauds the thousands of New Yorkers who phoned in reports of suspicious packages in the past year. But since we haven't heard reports of thousands of bombs recovered on the A train, it seems safe to surmise that the noise-to-signal ratio on such tips is quite high. As for national security alerts, our experience with color-coded national security warnings, and the attendant spectacle of panicked citizens mobbing Home Depot for plastic sheeting and duct tape, suggest that the Bureau might be well advised to exercise a bit of circumspection about those real-time updates.

Filed Under: billboards, criminals, crowdsourcing, fbi


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  1. icon
    chris (profile), 31 Dec 2007 @ 6:29am

    law enforcement on rye, hold the orwell

    i am all for privacy and limiting the powers of government, but lets have a little perspective here:

    1) 150 screens in a country the size of the US is not that many screens. assuming they put up multiple screens in a city and only in big cities, chances are there won't be any where you live. when the number grows to 1500, or 3000, then it's time to be concerned.

    2) it's the FBI putting up pictures of people it's looking for and not more cameras. screens are good, cameras and wiretaps are bad. this is about finding the actual bad guys, not turning citizens into bad guys. not everything the FBI does is a direct threat to our civil liberties.

    3) this is a move that invites us, the citizenry, into the law enforcement process. this is them trusting us to help. presumably, this is the next extension of the "amber alert system". there are text screens on the highways in the cincinnati area that give you updates on traffic situations and amber alerts. this is a means for law enforcement to obtain intel that doesn't involve taps, cameras, data mining, or rendition. programs like this one are how the FBI *should* be operating.

    the question that we should all be asking, is why are they using clear channel billboards? is this an exclusive deal? was this one of those no bid contracts? did clear channel donate the screens? clear channel is a huge national media conglomerate, will local law enforcement be able to make use as well?

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