Feature Story

Social Media: The New Crime Fighting Tool

by Mary Ann Azevedo

A look at how smartphones, social media and data are helping citizens and police in Brazil fight crime.

As mobility grows in Brazil, an increasing number of citizens there are turning to social media. Not just to socialize, but also to report criminal activity. Some Brazilians – particularly youth – are using smartphones to report crimes via Twitter.

Besides reporting crimes, citizens are using the Internet to share information on violence hotspots, mobilize the community and organize protests. On the flip side, cities are also using data to combat crime.

An example of where a data-driven approach to fighting crime has proven successful lies in the Brazilian municipality of Diadema, located just outside of Sao Paulo. According to the Diadema municipal press office, the city - which had a population of about 383,000  - registered 102.82 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants in 1999. In 2001, a crime mapping program called MapInfo, for police and officials to identify hotspots and at-risk neighborhoods, was implemented. By 2004, the homicide rate had plunged 68 percent and by 2009, reported crimes had dropped by 81.5 percent, according to a World Bank report.

Police and officials mapped places with the greatest incidence of crimes of all types, and, based on this study, installed 26 cameras in strategic spots. After learning from the map that 60 percent of incidents happened between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m., a law ordered the closure of bars between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.

“The use of big data and social media can allow for the scale, speed and specificity that most traditional approaches [to fighting crime] lack,” Igarapé Institute director Robert Muggah told Kenyan news agency IRIN, from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where he manages security and development projects across the region.


Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow with the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence in the foreign policy program at Brookings Institution, believes social media allows for much greater transparency and accountability, “because law enforcement can’t claim crimes aren’t taking place or murder rates aren’t as high.”

In 2007, Universidade de Fortaleza computer science professor Vasco Furtado launched a site called WikiCrimes in an effort to give residents the option to anonymously report crimes. WikiCrimes was born during and after his sabbatical at Stanford University in 2007. Furtado had almost ten years of experience as a director of technology of the State of Ceará Public Safety Secretariat.

“I realized that the veracity and accuracy of information about where crimes occur, as well as the information on the characterization of such crimes has always been on the agenda of discussions about public safety in Brazil and in various other countries,” Furtado said. “Allied to this context are the crises that have characterized the daily routines of law enforcement agencies as well as their limitations to provide a quality public service, which tend to diminish citizens’ trust in those agencies.”

He cites the growing problem of under-reporting— the low rate of reporting crimes – in Brazil.

 “It has become common for one to hear someone who has been mugged say that they didn’t file a police report because they thought it wouldn’t bring about any effect,” Furtado added. “The result of this can be disastrous in terms of formulation of public policies and particularly in the planning of police actions, since the official crime mapping may be reflecting a trend that is somewhat different than what is actually occurring in real life.”

The premise behind WikiCrimes is to provide a common area of interaction among people so that they can make the reports and monitor the locations where crimes are occurring. It is based on the principle that the ones who hold information about crimes are the citizens.

“If they want to make such information public, they can. Thus, individual participation, in a collaborative manner, can generate knowledge of the masses,” Furtado said. “…If there is active participation, crime mapping starts being done collaboratively, and everyone will benefit from having access to information about where crimes occur.”

 The anonymous nature of the site is crucial in making citizens comfortable to report crimes but it also raises concerns to some such as Felbab-Brown.

While she concedes that the overall increase in data mining and social media use provides a “banquet of new information sources to counter human security threats,” she warns that such information needs to be verified as much as possible and also risks getting into the wrong hands.

“It carries risks of false and inaccurate information reported,” Felbab-Brown cautions.

There’s no doubt that people can take information spread through social media and “use it for good,” Felbab-Brown notes. “But it’s equally possible that it’s misused by bad groups or criminal organizations or that there’s inaccurate information posted that leads to bad consequences.”

Furtado acknowledges accuracy concerns and notes that citizens can add links to videos, newspapers, photos or any other document (such as a police report) on WikiCrimes to aid in credibility. Also, for every criminal fact registered in the system, it is requested that there be an indication of at least one person who can confirm that the information posted is true.

“The more the information is confirmed, the more it is considered trustworthy. These indications for the confirmation of information generate a social network formed by the WikiCrimes users,” Furtado adds, noting that algorithms of data mining are also being developed to identify regularities and anomalies that can indicate false reports.

Overall, social media contributes to more transparency.

With WikiCrimes and other social media initiatives, “we show a concrete way to congregate people to fight for a cause, we develop high-level research on the domain and we provide free services to people,” Furtado said.  Today, “social networks are mainly used for entertainment in Latin America…What I hope is that that culture motivates also the use of social networks to support a cause, to fight against injustices and to improve our democracies.”


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