Matthew Hall March 30, 2012
Wanted... citizens are being asked to spot 'fugitives' and share information via social media.
The public are enlisted to help fight crime online.
The United States government is backing an international social media experiment in which participants search for "suspects" in a simulated law enforcement manhunt.
Dubbed "Tag Challenge", the competition hopes to harness the potential power of social media to search for fictional fugitives in five cities across the US and Europe.
The project is the brainchild of American graduate students. The US State Department has backed it as part of a international engagement program – the Young Leaders Dialogue with America – that focuses on transatlantic security, climate change, and tolerance and diversity.
"I like to think of the Tag Challenge as an experiment to see if modern technology enables citizens to contribute to public safety issues that require real-time intelligence," said Steve Miller, a Tag Challenge creator.
"We have framed the challenge around a fictional fugitive hunt, which is not exactly a novel concept. In the days of the Wild West, the local sheriff or a US Marshall would put up 'wanted' posters in the hope that people could help bring criminals to justice.
"150 years later, with the internet and social networks, we now have the ability to collaborate and share information quickly and efficiently, which could make this process faster."
Inspired by the DARPA Network Challenge, a similar competition that tracked balloons across the US, live "suspects" will roam Washington DC, New York City, London, Stockholm, and Slovenia's capital Bratislava on March 31.
Encouraging cooperation and the use of social media and networking, the first transnational team to locate and photograph the fugitives in all five cities will win $US5000.
"People participate in these social networks because they want to contribute, and to be part of something greater than themselves," Miller said. "It makes sense to harness that power to solve real-world, time-sensitive, problems like finding missing persons or responding to natural disasters.
"In the past few years, we have seen social networks used for both of these things, so the Tag Challenge emerged out of the need to better understand issues that surround mobilising public participation and extracting actionable information."
Open to the public, with only an internet connection required to participate, Tag Challenge is an example of the US government's recognition of the power social media holds as a 21st century engagement tool.
"Nearly all our overseas missions are engaged in social media and trying to maximise their potential for bringing people together in a way that promotes understanding of the US," said Jeffrey Jamison, an official with the State Department.
The competition is also planned to test the potential use of social media in locating missing persons but, while this year is the first time Tag Challenge has been held, organisers are aware results may be intangible and inconclusive.
In other words, no one knows what may happen.
"We're hoping to see whether it is possible [to locate all the suspects], where otherwise ordinary citizens can make a contribution." Miller said. "The domain of security is not exclusively law enforcement."
And, yes, Miller is aware the project may spark concern and debate about online – and offline – privacy.
"Everyone is concerned with privacy, particularly around information shared online, and rightfully so, but the Tag Challenge is not about tracking people on social media or digging into personal informational online," he said.
"Participants may be collaborating around the world using social networks but it will most likely be the eyes on the ground that locate the missing persons in the real, physical space. This is simply taking the Neighbourhood Watch idea to a bigger, international stage."
Mobile devices and social media are already providing assistance to law enforcement agencies in Australia and the United Kingdom.
A mobile application linked to Crimestoppers has been recently launched in those countries in an effort to connect local communities with police and assist in reporting crime.
"It is a great way for people to send us a message and support it with a picture, anywhere, anytime," said Assistant Commissioner Peter Barrie of the New South Wales Police.