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Press Release

Web Intelligence Helps Agencies Tackle Xenophobia Amid COVID-19

April 17, 2020

A crisis on the scale of the coronavirus pandemic brings out the best in people, from a rise in volunteerism to a recommitment to civic duty.

By Johnmichael O’Hare sales and business development director of Cobwebs Technologies

A crisis on the scale of the coronavirus pandemic brings out the best in people, from a rise in volunteerism to a recommitment to civic duty.

Unfortunately, widespread social and economic dislocation of the kind COVID-19 has brought forth, can also encourage bad, and even dangerous, behavior. Coronavirus-related fraud schemes, phishing e-mail, and counterfeit medical equipment are part of the problem.

But there has also been a rise in xenophobia. The FBI, according to recent media reports, has advised local law enforcement organizations to be on the watch for hate crime incidents against Asian Americans.  During one week in March, Asian Americans filed 673 reports of discrimination, including verbal harassment and denial of service, according to a hate crime reporting center.

While the most visible hate crimes take place in physical space, their inspiration may stem from the online world. Messages targeting Asians have surfaced on a variety of social media platforms, while anti-Semitic conspiracy theories around coronavirus have surfaced on anonymous web sites such as 4chan. Hateful talk can trigger violent action.

The trend is disturbing. But law enforcement agencies can get on top of the online xenophobic chatter before it takes an even more sinister turn.

Monitoring the online environment

The online environment, with its billions of internet-connected users, may seem an overwhelming place to look for threat actors who could harm local communities. The first step toward getting a handle on online activity is awareness. Local authorities need to recognize that xenophobic rhetoric, tropes and threats are circulating on a range of platforms.

The activity that’s easiest to spot takes place on the surface web. Law enforcement personnel can familiarize themselves with xenophobic hashtags to help monitor patterns of discrimination. My online research suggests the original anti-Asian hashtags were actually intra-Asian messages. Hashtags such as #dontcometojapan , interspersed with references to coronavirus, apparently aimed to discourage Chinese nationals from visiting Japan. A Thai graffiti artist launched an anti-Chinese Twitter barrage back in February, featuring such hashtags as #notwelcometothailand.

Those sentiments have grown globally with the dramatic expansion of coronavirus. As an investigator, hashtags are relevant to investigations and provide a way to track xenophobia. Threat actors may drop clues as to their location, so law enforcement agencies have a chance to link online threats to their local jurisdictions. A hashtag may mention a city or town, for example. A video or still image could reveal a license plate. And a dabbler in xenophobia who has forgotten to turn off geolocation, gives investigators some unwitting extra help.

The search for ominous language — and those behind it — becomes more difficult below the surface web. The more sophisticated threat actors operate in the deep web, where Google and other search engines don’t index websites, and the dark web, a segment of the deep web that’s rife with illegal activities. Here, people use a mix of anonymizing routers, proxy servers, and no-log virtual private networks to cover their online tracks.

Augmenting intuition

Threat actors’ ability to anonymize themselves in the dark web isn’t the only online issue law enforcement agencies face. The total population of online forums, cloud services, websites and social media profiles numbers in the billions. Those resources contain a staggering volume of data to comb through and analyze.

For that reason, law enforcement agencies should consider marrying their time-honed investigative techniques and intuition with emerging technology — specifically, web intelligence (WEBINT) platforms and artificial intelligence (AI).

Automated WEBINT has the ability to search across the uncharted deep and dark web layers as well as the surface web, while also scouring multiple social media platforms.  AI, when integrated with WEBINT, enables law enforcement agencies to create custom search parameters — a xenophobic hashtag plus the name of your local jurisdiction, for example — and unleash inquiries across web locales beyond the scope of traditional search engines. AI also helps with finding correlations among the various bits of data that come back from the WEBINT process. AI can help you make the critical connections much faster than relying strictly on human talent. And time is the critical dimension in any investigation.

Helping those in need

While hashtags and be used to hurl racial invective, they can also stimulate kinder impulses. Hashtags such as #needmasks and #needppe have become rallying points for donating much-needed protective equipment. Police departments can create their own coronavirus-related hashtags that encourage local residents to identify neighbors in need. You can then set up real-time alerts to identify and respond to social media posts.

The online world may seem a dense thicket in which conduct an investigation, but the internet can also serve as a pivotal investigative resource.  Equipped with WEBINT tools capable of navigating the web’s complexity, law enforcement can take a proactive stance in fighting hate crime while also helping those in need.

Johnmichael O’Hare is the sales and business development director of Cobwebs Technologies (www.cobwebs.com). He is the former Commander of the Vice, Intelligence, and Narcotics Division for the Hartford (Connecticut) Police Department. Prior to that he was the Project Developer for the City of Hartford’s Capital City Command Center (C4), a Real Time Crime Center (RTCC) that reaches throughout Hartford County and beyond. C4 provided real-time and investigative back support for local, state, and federal law enforcement partners utilizing multiple layers of forensic tools, coupled with data resources, and real-time intelligence. Contact him on [email protected]

Source: Officer

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