Pchat: Experts Question a New Social Network for Cops

An exclusive social network for cops, which will launch in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles this October, is drawing skepticism from lawyers and free-speech advocates who question its security claims. The site is supposed to serve as a combination of Facebook and LinkedIn, a place where law enforcement can share tactics on crime reduction and intelligence gathering. Theoretically, users will interact through secure instant messaging and videoconferencing, all safely removed from the public eye.

If the site, BlueLine, actually fulfills its promises, then it could be a new milestone for law enforcement technology. Its founder, former New York City Police Commissioner and ex-Los Angeles police Chief Bill Bratton, helped develop the popular crime-mapping system CompStat, which uses software data to abet so-called "hot spot" policing. He bankrolled BlueLine through his own venture capital arm, Bratton Technologies, and touts it as a tool to help police departments as they contend with diminishing manpower.

Bratton declined to speak to us, but representatives of his company have described BlueLine to other outlets as a "walled community" for authenticated members only — a virtual break room for cops.

But legal experts question whether such enclosures are really possible. At this point, it's not entirely clear whether Bratton's protection features are motivated by public safety concerns, or whether it's part of the BlueLine business plan — previous cop forums like CDCFRForums.com serve a similar purpose, and could be potential competitors. Whatever the case, though, information shared on the site wouldn't be immune to public-records requests, says Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition.

"I'd analogize it to similar discussions taking place over email," Scheer says. "If those email discussions would be subject to public-records requests, then it would be hard to argue that they would be exempt from the Public Records Act if they were taking place in a more open forum."

In fact, users would be naïve to assume their postings are protected from public viewing, says Berkeley civil rights lawyer James Chanin. "If you write an intelligence report, you wouldn't leave it on a bulletin board," Chanin says. Moreover, he adds, the very act of posting content on a site undermines any claims of confidentiality. All it would take is one rogue officer or one hacker to leak it.

Although Bratton's team ducked our questions about security, there's little doubt BlueLine will catch on in San Francisco, given his track record here. Local police adopted CompStat in 2009, and District Attorney George Gascón is a Bratton protégé. (Bratton also served as an adviser to Oakland Police Department.)

So San Francisco has already friended Bratton Technologies, whether or not the company wants to friend us back. But we're also a bastion of tech know-how and civil liberties, with an economy generated — at least partly — by hacker innovations. If Bratton truly wants to test his network security controls, he'll find no tougher audience.

 
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