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Introducing Social Media to an Emergency Operations Center

The Emergency Operations Center (EOC) for the City of Arcadia was activated during a mock earthquake drill on Thursday, October 20, 2011.  The drill was conducted in conjunction with the Great California ShakeOut, a statewide earthquake and preparedness drill.  Participation in this type of drill is not new for the Arcadia Police Department; however, this was the first time that social media monitoring was introduced to the event.

In the event of a true emergency or disaster, it is likely there will be interruptions in traditional communications platforms, such as landline phones and even cellular service.  As evidenced by actions after the Haiti and Christchurch earthquakes, community members may very well turn to alternative means of attempting to communicate with public safety and other emergency response organizations.  Social media platforms, like Twitter, were widely used by those seeking aid when conventional phone lines did not work.  By introducing social media platforms to our EOC operations, the Arcadia Police Department can offer our community alternative access to public safety services during a disaster or large scale emergency.  This social media monitoring is in no way meant to replace 9-1-1 or standard methods of reporting to public safety, but rather, to enhance our capabilities to better serve our community.

Current staffing levels and equipment do not allow day-to-day monitoring of social media platforms by our department.  This new implementation of potential monitoring will only be used during full-scale activations of our EOC.  The primary mission of social media use by the Arcadia Police Department remains community engagement and information sharing, not as an immediate response means of communication.  Always dial 9-1-1 to report emergencies or in-progress calls for service.

During this drill, personnel monitored two primary social media platforms: Facebook and Twitter.  The Arcadia Police Department accounts on each platform were monitored, along with keyword searches for terms associated with the City of Arcadia and our agency.  Other keywords dealing with community specific sites, such as Methodist Hospital, the IS 210 Freeway, and Santa Anita, were monitored and queried.  Additional methods and tools were utilized for monitoring Internet traffic to include, “geo-tagged” photos and messages within our community.

The intent of this proactive social media monitoring drill was to better prepare our personnel for our response to disasters or emergencies.  Although the social media engagement on behalf of our agency started a little over two years ago, this is the first application within emergency management.  Through our presence online, we have been able to build a base of users within and around our community before the need arises.  Some of the many benefits to social media participation within emergency management may include: the ability to proactively listen and potentially see problems before they are reported to staff, potential for additional “eyes” on a problem, the ability to assess and verify incoming information, influence rumor control, provide information such as shelters or evacuation points, and to act as an alternative reporting and communications venue.

And, it is not just social media that we have added to our tool kit in the EOC.  The Arcadia Police Department also uses the instant messaging service, Nixle, to deliver messages direct to our community and beyond.  Nixle allows the department to send emergency, advisory or community alert messages to the subscriber via text (SMS) and/or email.   Unlike social media, this form of instant messaging is only for outbound communication, but nonetheless, a valuable tool.  Nixle will be used in addition to our social media, as well as the “Alert LA County” call-back program, which targets primarily landline phones within a geographic area.

Introduction of these services to our Emergency Operations Center will only enhance and improve our service delivery in a disaster or large scale emergency.  It is imperative to remember though, that public safety resources will be taxed when disaster strikes.  Daily services and response times will be “out the window,” and our community must be prepared to assist themselves and one another, quite possibly without public safety assistance.  Please take the time to visit online resources, such as the American Red Cross and ShakeOut, and make use of the resource information they provide.


Social Media Quick Tip: 3 Reasons Why LEOs Should be on LinkedIn

Among them—it’s a secure, professional networking resource.

LinkedIn is a fantastic tool for law enforcement professionals. This online community offers a more sophisticated sharing environment, greater privacy controls and less concern that your data can be compromised by the carelessness of others.

Following are three reasons why police officers should consider signing up:

1. It allows you to connect with other professionals around the world: Connecting with others on LinkedIn works much like Facebook where it must be accepted by the recipient of the request. The real ah-ha moment comes after you’ve connected with a few people and look at LinkedIn’s network statistics. It’s then that you might realize that with about 75 first-degree connections, you could be linked to a million or more at the third degree, all around the world. Think about the power of this if you wanted to make a career move or need information about an issue you’re dealing with in your police force. It’s also surprisingly easy to connect with leaders in your profession with whom you might not otherwise have such an opportunity. Next time you attend training with police professionals from around the world, make a point of finding them on LinkedIn and stay connected.

2. It offers great group opportunities:
With LinkedIn Groups you can join other police professionals and join conversations or receive updates. There are dozens of LinkedIn groups representing police associations, publications (click here to join Law Officer’s group) or ones organized around certain topics (like social media use in law enforcement). With LinkedIn Answers, you can find answers to questions on just about any topic or even establish yourself as an expert on a topic by providing answers.

3. It’s your online resume: You may never have to send a paper resume again. As you progress through your career, edit as you go and your professional history is always up to date. That is one of the nicest benefits of LinkedIn. It helps you keep track of you.

This Social Media Quick Tip was previously published on LawOfficer.com.

Clouded in Confusion: Demystifying Cloud Computing

It’s like water

The term ‘cloud computing’ befuddles many. When computers first appeared on our desks at work, in order to do anything we had to buy software and install it on the box in our offices. Today, because everything can live in the cloud, one can literally purchase all his or her computing needs from a service provider who operates in the cloud. In the beginning it was about SAAS or Software as a Service. Today you can purchase virtual servers, storage, database services – organizations can now choose to place some or all of their IT systems in the cloud. These newer capabilities are referred to as infrastructure as a Service (IAAS) and platforms as a Service (PAAS) can also come from the cloud. Not only that, but the information in the cloud can be accessed from anywhere. Just like drinking water, all one needs to do is turn on the tap.

According to Wikipedia, “The term ‘cloud’ is used as a metaphor for the Internet, based on the cloud drawing … as an abstraction of the underlying infrastructure it represents.” Clouds can be public, private or a hybrid. Public clouds, (like social networks) are available to the general public. Private clouds exist solely for the use of the organization and can be located internally or externally. Hybrid clouds describe a combination of two or more clouds that talk to each other but are separate entities.

The one certainty is that cloud computing is causing a fundamental shift in information technology for organizations. Businesses large and small are starting to leverage cloud services, which means that sheriff’s offices large and small need to follow suit.

Taking a cue from the business world

In today’s economic times business leaders are increasingly focused on economies of scale, law enforcement too can learn from these practices. Just as any business that is hyper-focused on its core business, Sheriff’s agencies might better enable themselves to focus on crime fighting by outsourcing what’s not considered primary to its overall mission. Scalable, secure IT infrastructure is essential to any sheriff organization but isn’t easily achievable with slashed resources and constant threat of data breaches.

Brian Doyle is the Vice President of IT and Data Center Services at PCNet Inc., a Connecticut-based IT services company. His company is increasingly contacted by government organizations that no longer have the resources to replace aging systems, “these organizations have legacy applications which require new infrastructure to support them and because of staff reductions they probably don’t have the IT resources in place to safeguard data.” To earn industry certifications such as SAS70 Type II and SSAE16, companies like PCNet must meet strict standards that ensure physical security, networking security and sound business operations.

Data security is of paramount concern to all but with recent highly publicized data breaches, law enforcement is increasingly worried about protecting the data they gather. This summer, after the BART Police in California shut down cell-phone service following a threat of protest at a few of its underground rail stations, members of the hacker collective calling itself Anonymous infiltrated BART databases at least twice. The first time the hackers gained information about more than a hundred police officers that they subsequently posted online. The second time, the hackers released information on about 2,400 BART customers. The protesters were calling attention to a recent officer-involved fatal shooting of a homeless man.[1] “Everybody is concerned about whether or not they can keep their data protected and what are they going to do if there’s an attack. Generally IT professionals have more experience at dealing with these types of attacks than your average law enforcement IT guy”, stated Doyle.

Scalable Innovation

Law enforcement leaders are approached regularly by companies who have innovative applications that would benefit their organizations in some way. The disconnect often occurs at the point where a purchase decision is to be made which in turn requires research and then installation on in-house servers. Additionally, many of the most innovative applications need a lot of computing power to run them.

Scott Mills is the Vice President of Global Information Technology for Conservation International. He said taking something innovative to scale is one of the primary benefits of using cloud computing services, “before, if I wanted a solution I had to buy a server and software and spend time figuring out what I wanted. Now it takes 5 minutes to turn on SAAS in the cloud, now I have capability to do things I wasn’t previously able to do”.  For Mills it isn’t about having a “cloud strategy” but more about having a strategy of which the cloud is a part.

A example of this is the Baltimore Police Department’s use of Xora’s Field Force Manager Software program. The application is not only used to coordinate efforts in crowd control situations, but also to track the location of officers by the dispatchers. Without the computing power offered by the cloud, running such a program would not be possible. [2]

What does the cloud mean for forensic investigations?

While those in the IT services business, like Doyle, would argue that he is better equipped to ensure data security, many organizations are hesitant about moving operations to the cloud and cite security and the relinquishing of control as two of the top reasons why.

For law enforcement, one significant issue is obtaining evidence from cloud-based systems.  These systems store data on massive storage arrays that make forensic data acquisition much more complex. Cloud providers haven’t designed a way to comply with forensic investigations and investigators have likewise not offered procedures either. In most cases, in a cloud environment, the investigator is not going to be able to get his or her hands on the actual physical device storing the data and current forensic investigation standards require direct access to digital evidence[3].  Further complicating an investigation is that different processes might be outsourced to different cloud service providers, each one with its own terms of service and each one in a different geography with possibly even several countries involved.

Security experts also point out that the low cost and flexibility that attracts businesses to cloud-based services also attracts criminals, and these services make it easier for criminals to cover their tracks and operate with significantly more anonymity in the cloud. Eric Jacksch is an Information Security expert who manages the Canadian Security Practice for a global IT services company. He outlined a scenario where a criminal could use a throw-away cell phone, a prepaid gift card and a fake email address to set up shop to commit fraud. “A few years ago, if you wanted to start a system you had to purchase or rent a physical server. Today you can rent virtual servers on the cloud by the hour, they’re dirt cheap and you can delete things when you’re done.” That system can also easily be moved around according to Jacksch, “and by the time a victim gets a credit card statement the server used to commit the fraud simply doesn’t exist.  We’re now in the era of the throw-away server and it’s going to be a nightmare for investigators.”

On the other hand, a diet-drug scam investigation provided what is known as the first search warrant benefiting from a suspect’s use of cloud computing last year. FBI agents were able to obtain incriminating data more easily because it existed on Google’s cloud servers rather than the suspect’s own hard-drives. The 1986 Stored Communications Act allows the government to access a customer’s data whenever there are “reasonable grounds” to believe the information would be relevant in a criminal investigation. Even though the Feds obtained a search warrant they did not have to meet the standards for “probable cause”, nor did they have to go to the suspect’s location.[4]

To Jacksch, the cloud isn’t more or less secure than traditional IT systems, just different. “So much depends on the provider and the way in which the services are managed and used”, he said, and added, “you’re giving up some control to the cloud provider but having control doesn’t always mean having better security. We can achieve a high level of security in the cloud.  However, poorly managed cloud services can lead to disaster just as quickly as poorly managed traditional IT servers.” The cloud-enabled ability to instantly back up data is significant to Jacksch, “many small organizations simply can’t afford the type of backup capability that cloud providers offer.”

Cloud computing requires a different approach by investigators.  On one hand, recreating a crime scenario in a cloud computing environment may become nearly impossible. Among the reasons is that data on the cloud often exists in several places and is mobile, making it difficult for an investigator to find and obtain the data in its original form. On the other hand, multiple copies of data and near-instant backup capabilities may allow the investigator to find or capture evidence that would have otherwise been overwritten.

While cloud computing is one of the most talked about developments in information technology, even IT professionals are struggling to absorb what it means to their organizations. Whether they outsource IT services or not, sheriff’s agencies in the future are quite likely to find themselves increasingly pushed to cooperate with other agencies as they struggle to understand the cloud, through all the haze and the fog.

[1]Melrose, Bob, “BART Hacked Again; Police Officer Data Released”, CBS San Francisco, http://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2011/08/17/bart-hacked-again-police-officer-data-released/
[2] Gourley, Bob, “Cloud Computing for Law Enforcement“, Cloud Computing Journal, http://cloudcomputing.sys-con.com/node/1810027 April 28, 2011
[3] Reilly, Denis; Wren, Chris; Berry, Tom. International Journal Multimedia and Image Processing. “Cloud Computing: Pros and Cons for Computer Forensic Investigations”. Vol; 1. Issue 1. March 2011.
[4] Poulsen, Kevin. Wired.com “Spam Suspect Uses Google Docs; FBI Happy”. April 16, 2010.

This article was previously published in the NSA’s Deputy and Court Officer magazine.

Social Media Quick Tip: Google+, Plus What?

Before you create a Google+ account for your agency, make sure you know what you're going to do with it.

In June, Google launched its own social network called Google+. The current estimated of number of users of G+ are as high at 40 million compared to nearly 800 million for Facebook. Although neither company claims to be competing against the other, it’s clear to many social media observers that stakes are high as the one that comes out on top stands to wield considerable control over the future of the Web.

Google just launched Google+ for companies and organizations this week. At what point should law enforcement agencies incorporate Google+ into their social media programs? I was pretty excited to set up my own company page, but was somewhat disappointed once I had it created. Company pages seem to be much the same as individual pages. I was expecting many more marketing features.

I’ve long maintained that creating any social media profile should be preceded by proactive strategy development that’s in alignment with agency communication goals. The great majority of law enforcement agencies have Facebook, Twitter, even YouTube accounts without having first given any thought to what they’re going to do with them. Now that Google+ is available to your agency, first ask yourself if it makes sense for you to be there. Are any of your audiences there? Do you have a strategic reason—a business case—for justifying the page?

At a minimum, it would be a good idea to create a page to “hold” your agency name, and by all means, monitor to see if anyone is impersonating your agency (this goes for all social networks). Digital impersonators might be a big problem on Google+ as verification procedures don’t seem to have been established.

If you’re anxious to get started, once you have a personal profile you can create a page at https://plus.google.com/pages/create.

We will continue to update you on Google+ pages and will be providing more Social Media Quick Tips on how to leverage Google+ pages for your agency in the coming weeks.

DHS Networking Site and Working Group Fill Unique Roles

Law enforcement now has plenty of resources for communicating with the public online; the past few years have seen an explosion in the use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others.  But where do I go to communicate with others in my field or find advice when an issue arises?

Lately, I’ve been using a great tool called the First Responder Communities of Practice, and it is increasingly the place I turn for networking and sharing information with others in the field.  After joining the site, located at http://Communities.FirstResponder.gov, members have unprecedented access to practitioners across the country representing nearly every expertise imaginable.   I’ve been impressed with how easy it is to locate and ask questions of other public information officers and first responders whose years of experience well surpass mine.

Site members use discussion boards, shared document repositories, wikis, and other tools to collaborate on projects and share information with one another.  The site was created by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science & Technology (S&T) Directorate to foster information sharing across all homeland security related fields.  I’d encourage anyone who is interested to sign up for an account and begin exploring what’s available.  It’s also easy to share your own resources and get your name out in front of a nation-wide audience.

You will quickly notice the unique chance for cross-disciplinary information sharing, meaning that you can discuss common issues with groups such as the fire service or non-profit organizations.  As the world becomes more interconnected and strained budgets force further coordination of operations and resources, I think the site is an impressive place to connect on these efforts.  It’s hard to imagine the wealth of knowledge and potential for collaboration opportunities on another site. And the best part, especially in today’s budgetary environment, is its free!

In addition to the Communities of Practice site, I am also participating in the DHS S&T led Virtual Social Media Working Group (VSMWG).  It has been fascinating to explore the potential of social media tools and to hear from other practitioners across the country regarding the integration of these technologies into their agencies.  Our discussions so far have reinforced the fact that social media for law enforcement is all about engaging the community, humanizing the agency, and keeping citizens informed at all times.  What better way is there to achieve these goals than for agencies to come together across geographic region and public safety discipline to share best practices?

Soon, the working group will release to the public a Social Media Guidance document containing a breakdown of all the issues to consider when implementing social media in a public safety organization.  It is a great resource for users of any skill level who want to get an overview of the benefits and strategies for social media in police work.  As the world embraces social media and the technology is integrated further into the lives of our community, I feel confident that the members of this working group will keep public safety at the forefront of these changes.

Both of these initiatives have me more excited than ever about how these tools will shape the way we work online, engage our community and most importantly, keep them safe!

To join DHS S&T First Responder Communities of Practice and learn more about the Virtual Social Media Working Group, visit http://Communities.FirstResponder.gov

Stephanie Slater

Stephanie Slater became the Boynton Beach Police Department’s Public Information Officer in April 2007, following seven years as a newspaper reporter. Slater, a New York native, is a graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, where she majored in print journalism.  Slater is the spokeswoman for the Boynton Beach Police Department, serving as the liaison between the officers, the media and the public. She writes the department’s press releases, provides television news interviews, maintains the department’s Web sites (bbpd.org, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) and oversees the department’s Officer of the Month program. Slater is a member of the National Public Information Officers Association and an executive board member with the Florida Law Enforcement Public Information Officers Association. Follow the Boynton Beach Police on Facebook (www.facebook.com/boyntonbeachpolice) and Twitter (@bbpd).


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