Herbert Dyer, Jr.

For many years, police departments and most other law enforcement agencies have embraced social media as an investigative tool in tracking and cracking crime.

But, according to governing.com, police in some “major metropolitan” areas have taken the use of social media a huge step further. The US Army is now collaborating with police to apply a specific software that can reliably predict whether a person is part of a gang based on their social networks.

The software has, in fact, been successfully used in tracking “insurgents” in Afghanistan and other “hot spots” throughout the world where the Army is deployed.

Indeed, as reported by gizmodo.com, the tracking of Afghanistan insurgents by computer has been going on for at least the last decade.

The Army way

The Army uses the software to graphically illustrate relationships between suspected and known insurgents. Its special focus in Afghanistan has been on identifying and interrupting the development and use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

The program groups individuals according to “levels of association,” says technologyreview.com. Insurgency members, as do street gang members, tend to form groups – associations -- based first on family affiliations, which extend into surrounding neighborhoods and which eventually include the larger community.

Militarys1.com reports that by tracking and categorizing these “associations,” Army researchers began to recognize system-wide patterns which could accurately predict who might be involved in not just a particular insurgency group, but specific insurgent operations within that group.

Are street gangs “urban terrorists”?

According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Technology Review, there are striking sociological similarities between insurgents and American street gangs. "In the last 10 years or so, researchers have revolutionized the way military analysts think about insurgency and the groups of people involved in it," explains the Review. "Their key insight is that insurgency tends to run in families and in social networks that are held together by common beliefs."

These discoveries seemed to apply seamlessly to the formation and functioning of street gangs in major American cities. On June 28, West Point researchers published a paper that detailed exactly that: how a similar domestic version of the Army software is being used to track and disrupt gang violence.

The software is called Organizational, Relationship, and Contact Analyzer, or ORCA. Just like its military counterpart, it groups would-be or actual gangbangers in particular communities in accordance with their known relationships.

In gathering its results, though, ORCA uses one important parameter not normally available to military users: arrest records. The results have been nothing short of phenomenal. ORCA's specific algorithm has allowed police to successfully determine whether particular individuals are already in gangs and whether they are likely to join a gang. They are able to study or “map” specific "corner crews," and "seed sets" -- those individuals who may be the “shot callers” in a particular street gang.

Theblaze.com tells us that ORCA was first tested for three-years and resulted in 5,400 arrests. That is, to say the least, eye-opening. An astounding 11,000 "relationships" revealed a networked map of 468 members of at least 20 street gangs.

This program is ongoing throughout this summer, but neither the police nor the Army will reveal which “metropolitan areas” are being tested. Suffice it to say, though, that this program will soon be operative in police stations across the country.

The bottom line confirms an old adage that your mother probably tried to drum into you: You really are judged by the company you keep.


On the surface, this new application of military software to a seemingly intractable street gang problem is a “good” and sorely needed thing.

But local police violations of First Amendment rights to “peaceably assemble” can easily be foreseen.

Thanks to Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, we are all already acutely aware of the federal government's over-the-top zeal in intruding into all manner of formerly “private” spaces.

Will this new effort by precinct houses and corner police stations pry even deeper into our once private -- even sacrosanct -- domains?

Does this mean, for example, that because one has a relative who may or may not be in a gang – but is so “suspected” by an anonymous computer – that you and all your social media contacts and relationships will be subject to close police department scrutiny?

And just because you know or have a tangential or tenuous relationship with a gangbanger, does that always mean that you are yourself a gangbanger or likely to become one?

How does one defend oneself on the street, in the police station, or in court against a computer program that has declared you guilty without benefit of charge, attorneys, judges...or common sense?

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