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Anti-Semitic attacks, bomb-like devices: Online clues to potential terror attacks?

Adams Urges Cops to Bring Guns to Church in Brooklyn

October 29, 2018 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Following Saturday’s horrific attack at a synagogue in Pittsburg on Saturday, Borough President Eric Adams on Sunday urged off-duty police officers to bring their guns with them to religious services. He was joined by the Flatbush Jewish Community Coalition, Councilmember Chaim Deutsch and numerous local leaders at Ohel Bais Ezra, a Jewish family services center in Midwood, home to thousands of Orthodox Jews.  Photo courtesy of the Borough President’s Office
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“From now on I will bring my handgun every time I enter a church or synagogue,” Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former police captain, said on Sunday, following the horrific shooting rampage that took place at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday.

“If we have police officers standing in front of churches, we can’t say it’s wrong for a police officer who’s off duty be inside churches with a gun,” Adams said. “We have to live in this real universe that we’re in.”

Anti-Semitic incidents surged 57 percent in in U.S. 2017, according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Other terror-related incidents also surged in 2017, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks incidents of hate and bigotry.

In many of these cases, the alleged assailants left a trail of social media postings that, in retrospect, gave clues to their impending acts of violence.

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Robert Bowers, who told police after his rampage on Saturday that he wanted “all Jews to die,” posted numerous anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on the social media platform Gab, which is embraced by followers of the alt-right. In the 19 days before the attack, he posted at least 68 times, the Southern Poverty Law Center said.

Cesar Sayoc, the Florida man arrested this week as the so-called #MAGAbomber, frequently posted pro-Trump messages on Twitter that threatened Democratic leaders and news media outlets, many of whom he later sent bomb-like devices.

Twitter, Facebook, Discord and YouTube have, over the last year or two, become home to racist conspiracy theories casting various groups — Democrats, Jews, immigrants, blacks, liberals, Muslims or the so-called “deep state” — as working to “destroy the white race.”

In other cases, terror groups such as ISIS use social media as a recruiting tool. ISIS has inspired “lone wolves” to carry out attacks like the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, for example.

Law Enforcement Monitors Social Media

Can law enforcement agencies can do more to monitor social media for clues to unbalanced people?

The Department of Homeland Security, the Secret Service and the NYPD (via the Community Affairs Bureau) all monitor social media accounts, but making the connection between angry rants and future terror attacks is not as easy as it sounds.

The NYPD “embraced the power of social media for investigations many years ago. Unfortunately, it changes so fast and finding experts on every platform is daunting,” Joseph Giacalone, a former decorated NYPD detective sergeant and adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice told the Brooklyn Eagle on Monday.

“There are so many platforms and so few personnel to cover everything,” he pointed out.

Social media intelligence, aka SOCMINT, refers to the methods that allow the government to monitor social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. New, efficient forms of information collection are being used by the government, private companies and foreign states.

The very efficiency of this data collection presents a dilemma, Giacalone says.

There is “a problem with what freedom of speech actually is in social media,” he said. “There is a fine line between what is said and what can be perceived as hate or what is a threat. Too many people making too many ridiculous comments that it is overwhelming. You can’t respond to every stupid thing said on the Internet.”

Growing Use by NYPD

By monitoring Facebook and Twitter, the NYPD has prevented outbreaks of violence at the community level.

For example, following mass disruption and even gunfire at Brooklyn Bridge Park several summers ago, NYPD began to monitor the Facebook accounts of youth who used the platform to invite hundreds to gather at specific locations. By staying on top of the accounts, police were able to station themselves at the meeting sites, preventing the groups from overwhelming the park.

Beyond monitoring accounts, the NYPD uses social media to actively engage with the city’s citizens, which produces “invaluable law enforcement results,” according to Zach Tumin, NYPD deputy commissioner for Strategic Initiatives

In an online webinar in 2016, Tumin described NYPD’s pilot Ideascale program. Ideascale is a crowdsourcing forum which solicits tips from residents. Launched in 2015 in Queens, submissions are made anonymously.

The program is largely focused on quality of life issues, but the department can also receive “digital evidence” to gain insight into what could become future issues “and prevent network violence,” Tumin said during the webinar.

Big Data

On the big data front, researchers are developing ever more sophisticated tools.

For example, University of Miami researchers have developed a model to identify behavioral patterns among online groups of ISIS supporters that could provide “indicators when conditions are ripe for the onset of real-world attacks,” according to the university’s website.

“It was like watching crystals forming. We were able to see how people were materializing around certain social groups; they were discussing and sharing information—all in real-time,” said Neil Johnson, a physicist in the College of Arts and Sciences.

The Department of Defense has developed a system to collect and analyze information from social media and across the internet.

The tool, called Information Volume and Velocity, collects information, analyzes it for trends and provides commanders with up-to-the-second information, according to the Baltimore Sun and DoD sources.

Isaac Porche, a researcher at the RAND Corporation, told the Baltimore Sun that the potential for online monitoring “is huge,” especially if the information can be combined with other databases.

“It’s one thing that if someone posts they like al-Qaida or ISIS,” he said. “It’s another thing if you have some data that shows this is not just a rant.”

According to London non-profit Privacy International, social media surveillance techniques, like other covert intelligence techniques, need to be closely regulated by law.

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