The Impact Of Social Networking and Other Technologies On Covert Policing

Title: The Impact Of Social Networking And Other Technologies On Covert Policing

Professor Nick O’Brien, School of Policing, Charles Sturt University, Canberra Australia


Strategies and tactics to deal with organised crime and other serious criminal issues have included the use of undercover officers who  use  an assumed identity.   This  method of operating by  police is  widespread throughout  the  world  and  in Australia  it  has  been  legitimised  by  the  introduction  of various  ‘Assumed Identities’ Acts.

The  last five  years have seen an exponential rise  in the  popularity of online social networking which has included users  posting photographs  of themselves  and other people  on the internet, often ‘tagging’ the photographs with names of the people depicted. This has coincided with an increase in the effectiveness of facial recognition software to the extent that it is included in the standard package of some computers.  At least one brand of computer allows users to log on using facial recognition software.

‘Smart phones’ which allow users to take relatively high resolution pictures  and log onto the internet are also increasingly popular. ‘Cloud computing’ has allowed the ordinary user access to computer power and storage that was previously only available to governments and the military.

The  question  the  researchers  ask  is  ‘will  the  convergence  of social networking  and other technologies make the use of undercover policing redundant as society is rapidly approaching a point where everyone’s true identity can be obtained?’


Before  joining  Charles  Sturt  University,  Nick  represented  the  UK  Association  of Chief  Police  Officers  -­‐

Terrorism  and Allied  Matters  Committee  (ACPO-­‐TAM)  as  the Counter Terrorism  and  Extremism  Liaison Officer (CTELO) at the British High Commission in Canberra.   Nick covered Australasia and had a ‘watching brief’ on the Asia and the Pacific region.

Prior  to  this  posting  Nick  was  in  charge  of  International  Counter Terrorism  in  Special Branch  at  New Scotland  Yard,  London.    Nick  has  also  represented  the  UK  at  Europol,  the  G8  Counter  Terrorism Practitioners meetings and the European Police Working Group on Terrorism.  Nick first started working in the counter terrorism related area in 1981 and has worked on Irish as well as international terrorism. Nick has  written for various  publications and has appeared on radio and television commentating on terrorist related matters.

Nick is a visiting Fellow at the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Co-­‐operation in Indonesia. He sits  on the Board of Management of the Australian Graduate School of Policing and is an adjunct academic at the Australian National University (ANU).