Justice

NYPD Increases Social Media Surveillance To Stop ‘Lone Wolf’ Terrorists

CREDIT: Dave Hosford via Flickr

The New York Police Department (NYPD) is ramping up its social media monitoring after a man attacked four police officers with a hatchet last month.

NYPD officials said the attacker Zale Thompson, 32, a former Navy man and Islam convert, was a homegrown terrorist acting alone. Police shot and killed Thompson during the October attack.

In response to the incident, the NYPD said it will expand social network scanning efforts of its Operation Sentry Program created after 9/11 to combat the rising prominence of extremist movements online. Police say jihadist groups are luring sympathetic Americans through social media, websites and independent e-zines, which raises the potential for solo-acting terrorists.

“They’re trying to access sites that they’re going to find stimulating and try to make up for whatever deficits they have in their lives in terms of trying to find meaning or a cause,” NYPD Police Commissioner William Bratton told Bloomberg News.

Law enforcement frequently uses social media to gather leads, but often fumbles when it comes to identifying online speech. That’s partly due to the inconsistent treatment of what’s said online versus in-person. Police often dismiss online speech as harmless, which has led to incidents of online harassment turning into real life threats. Even when online violent threats are reported to the police, they’re often not taken seriously and dismissed as jests or empty threats.

Other times, what’s said online even as a joke has incited fierce police response. For instance, Illinois police raided a man’s house because of a disabled parody Twitter account that described a local mayor as a boozing, marijuana smoking stripper lover.

That disparity in how online speech is treated has caused U.S. Supreme Court to take up the issue, after a man was convicted in 2010 for threatening to kidnap and kill his wife on Facebook.

The NYPD has been enveloped in controversy when it comes to its crime stopping tactics, such as stop-and-frisk, that often end up disenfranchising certain groups. And the new social media monitoring program isn’t the NYPD’s first attempt at counterterrorism surveillance. The department previously had a secret unit tasked with spying on Muslims in the greater New York City area through eavesdropping, tracking mosques, and infiltrating student groups. The program was catastrophically unsuccessful and was shut down after mounting public criticism for the program’s violation of civil liberties.