When Jack Dorsey founded the Twitter micro-blogging service in 2006, he, like most business owners, was surely hoping for great success.  Now just few short years later, he clearly has arrived.  Twitter has grown from about 500,000 tweets per quarter in 2007 to more than 4 billion tweets in the first quarter of 2010.  While Twitter naysayers abound, the numbers speak for themselves and clearly something big is going on here.

Yet even the founder of Twitter himself could not have envisioned a tweet like this one: 

A solemn day. Barring a stay by Sup Ct [US Supreme Court], & with my final nod, Utah will use most extreme power & execute a killer. Mourn his victims. Justice.

The tweet was posted by the Utah State Attorney General Mark Shurtleff on his Twitter page.   Shurtleff posted the update via his iPhone on the state’s firing-squad execution of convicted murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner.

Other tweets by the Utah Attorney General included:

As noted in the BBC story below, the chilling tweets by the Utah Attorney General were unique in that they coolly described in real-time the execution of another human being.  Moreover, Shurtleff distinguished himself by making his weighty pronouncements on the same micro-blogging site that unites millions of fans from MTV’s Jersey Shore. While prison wardens in the past have held press conferences to announce the execution of convicts incarcerated in their facilities, the use of Twitter to do the same, seemed un-befitting the gravity of the situation, as evidenced by numerous responses posted on the BBC website.

Elsewhere in the Twitterverse, in yet another first for Twitter, a South Korean man by the name of Lee Kye-Hwa used the service to Tweet his suicide note.  In his final June 2010 Tweet, the 27 year-old disc jockey from Seoul noted: I’m going to commit suicide. To all of you, even those who shared the slightest friendship with me, I love you.  Though several of his followers attempted frantically to locate Lee, he was found later hanging by the neck from a ferry dock along the Han river in Seoul.

Growing Legal, Crime and Control Implications for Twitter

The growth and social use of Twitter cannot be underestimated and increasingly the microblogging service has been used in a wide variety of crime and legal proceedings.  The first criminal prosecution arising from a Twitter posting took place in April 2009 when FBI agents arrested Daniel Knight Hayden.  Hayden was accused of sending tweets threatening violence in connection with his plan to attend a Tea Party protest in Oklahoma.

In another case, New York City activist Elliot Madison had his home raided by FBI agents who conducted a sixteen-hour search in pursuit of his alleged criminal twittering activities related to the 2009 anti-G-20 protests held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Law enforcement officials claimed Madison used a police scanner to track police movements during the protests and that Madison relayed the sensitive information via Twitter to other protesters during the G-20 event.  Madison was charged with hindering apprehension or prosecution, criminal use of a communication facility, and possession of instruments of crime.

As reported elsewhere on Future Crimes, street gangs from New York to Los Angeles have also taken to Twitter as a means of organizing and threatening other gangs, often with violent results.

Not only is Twitter playing a role in an increasing number of law enforcement cases, but it also is being used as a means of social and political organization to combat state authorities.  Perhaps no other use of Twitter has garnered as much attention as its use by thousands of protesters in Iran in response to allegations of fraud in the June 2009 Iranian presidential elections.  After other forms of social media and communication were blocked by Iranian authorities, ordinary Iranian citizens turned to Twitter as a rallying tool and as a means of reaching the outside world to report on what was happening inside the country.  The use of Twitter was deemed so important to the opposition’s activities in Iran, that the US Department of State itself contacted Twitter officials to request they delay a planned maintenance shut-down of their servers in order to allow news to freely flow among Iranians and to the rest of the world. During the frenzy of social protest and demonstration activities in Iran, both sides tried to use Twitter to their advantage: the Iranian government, by monitoring Tweets and blocking the service, and the protests, who further used Twitter to organized DDOS attacks against Iranian government websites.

More Twitter Crime to Follow:

What we have seen to-date is merely a taste of the many potential criminal activities which might be facilitated through the use of Twitter.  Drug dealing via Twitter?  Sure why not.  Prostitution?  Obviously.  Stalking tweets and threats of domestic violence via Twitter?  Already happening.  Twitter controlled bot-nets? Why of course, it was just a matter of time.  The spreading of malware and computer viruses via Twitter?  Mais bien sûr.  Impersonating a police officer on Twitter?  Yes, fake police Twitter accounts complete with Department badge and insignia have already been uncovered in both Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas, to name a few.  Selling of compromised Twitter accounts by international organized crime groups? Yes, for several years now.  What about Twitter Phishing?  Yup, there’s an app for that too.

As the number of Twitter applications, clients and widgets increases, so too will the criminal possibilities.  New money-transfer services have been launched based upon Twitter, most notably Twitpay, which brings together Twitter accounts and Paypal in order to allow users to send payments to one another via the micro-blogging service.  Of course, this now opens the door to the potential of money laundering and terrorist financing as well.

Putting it All in Perspective

Of course Twitter as a technology is neither good nor evil.  It is in fact a neutral technological tool.  Though clearly Twitter can play a role in criminal activities, many of the same crimes could have been committed just as easily over the telephone.  It is important to recall that Twitter surely can be used for the many positive purposes for which it was created as well.

Besides the obvious social networking aspects of friends chatting or families updating each other on the latest relevant news, so too can police and government benefit from services such as Twitter as they seek to more effectively deliver services to the public at-large.  There are numerous legitimate public safety applications for Twitter and in fact, many cities around the world, including San Francisco, have turned to Twitter to communicate with citizens and to allow for greater access to police services.  Moreover, certain police departments, including this one in Colorado (USA) have enabled police officers to Tweet directly from their patrol cars, ensuring extremely close contact between law enforcement officials and the communities they serve.  In some cases, burglars and robbers have been caught as a direct result of the Twitter technology.

In addition, Twitter has proven useful during times of crisis or national emergency.  In fact, research reported in the May 2008 issue of New Scientist magazine found that blogs and instant messaging systems like Twitter did a better job of getting information out during emergencies than either the traditional news media or government emergency services.  Moreover, the study also found that during the large brush fires that affected California in October of 2007, many Twitter users were able to keep friends and family updated on their whereabouts, as well as the progression of the fire itself.  In recognition of these positive advantages, the American Red Cross recently started using Twitter as a means of updating the public minute-by-minute on local disaster events.

Twitter is an interesting technological innovation in that it seemed fulfill a need that none of us knew we had: the ability to send short SMS-like messages over the Internet.  Surely Twitter will not be the last such information technology created to fulfill a need yet unrecognized.  Yet as this constant stream of techno-wonders gets introduced to the masses, careful consideration should be given to both the negative as well as the positive aspects of the technology.  Criminals often are at least a few steps ahead of the police in their rapid adoption of emerging technologies and by extension, many steps ahead of criminal and civil law, which must play a constant game of catch-up with the latest techo-discoveries.  Given the non-stop march of technology, law enforcement and society in general would do well to consider some of the social and legal implications of these technologies before they can be exploited to the detriment of others.

Utah firing squad death announced on Twitter

by BBC News

June 18, 2010

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff uses Twitter to get his message out

It was a very modern way to announce a very old-fashioned death.  Shortly after midnight in the US state of Utah, Attorney General Mark Shurtleff picked up his Apple iPhone, opened up a Twitter “app” on his handset and began tweeting.

But Mr. Shurtleff’s 134-character composition was no ordinary post. This was not a piece of miscellany from the 53-year-old’s home life, a link chosen to amuse or interest his followers, nor even a political prod at his Democratic rivals. Instead, Mr Shurtleff used Twitter to announce that most important of all things: the death of a human being, convicted murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner.

“I just gave the go ahead to Corrections Director to proceed with Gardner’s execution. May God grant him the mercy he denied his victims,” the attorney general wrote.

The message would have been seen by the 7,000 or so users who “follow” Mr. Shurtleff on Twitter.  But thanks to the exponential way in which messages are spread on Twitter – being “retweeted” by those who find them interesting – the Utah politician’s words soon found their way to a wider audience. 

‘Final nod’

In all Mark Shurtleff sent three tweets around the time that a five-man firing squad put Gardner to death. In his first, sent at 1318 local time (1918 GMT) on Thursday, Mr Shurtleff acknowledged the gravity of the occasion.

“A solemn day. Barring a stay by Sup Ct [US Supreme Court], & with my final nod, Utah will use most extreme power & execute a killer. Mourn his victims. Justice.”

Later he posted confirmation that he had indeed given that “final nod.”

Fifteen minutes after that, at 0015 local time, his Tweet served a purpose more recognisable to regular users of the service: self-publicity. ”We will be streaming live my press conference as soon as I’m told Gardner is dead. Watch it at www.attorneygeneral.Utah.gov/live.html” he wrote. Mr. Shurtleff was doing nothing unusual: politicians and news organisations now routinely send out tweets to alert people to the latest developments. But as Twitter users digested endless breaking news flashes alerting them to the death of a man by firing squad in the United States, for some Mr Shurtleff’s remarks stood out from the rest.

Within minutes a line from the BBC’s news story was in circulation: “Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff used the Twitter micro-blogging site to say he had given the go-ahead for execution.” Reacting to the news one British tweeter, Sam Delaney, under his username Fyshdesign, wrote simply: “That’s awful!”  Switzerland-based Guy Ordway added simply: “Crikey.” A Bangkok tweeter adopted Twitter parlance, dubbing the event the “twttrexecution.“  Another user, known only as Brenstrong, observed in a public reply that: “death penalty bad enough. Firing squad! And there’s an absurdity to a man’s demise being announced over twitter…”

Gardner’s execution was not Mr. Shurtleff’s first foray on Twitter. He first made headlines in 2009 when he posted in public a message intended to be sent privately - revealing tentative plans to run for the US Senate.  He has now sent 632 tweets and appears to use the service regularly to update his followers on events in Utah. For some at least, using Twitter to announce the execution of a man is just an extension of that public service.

Utah resident Davy, known on Twitter as jockhippie, summed up that train of thought : “Good job mark shurtleff! using twitter!”

Oh, and for those who want a good overview of what Twitter is all about: