Word of a venture-funded "Facebook" or "LinkedIn" for cops captivated privacy experts about two months ago, when the news hit the very social media sites they were trying to emulate. But the service premiered last week as promised, with a grand coronation at International Association of Police Chiefs' annual conference in Philadelphia, and a nation-wide launch thereafter.
Called BlueLine, the network currently serves as a video conferencing platform for police officers to share strategies and expertise. It combines "the look and feel of a Google hangout," with the interest-group functionality of a LinkedIn, according to David Riker, president of the service's private backer, Bratton Technologies.
It also has a fairly prominent imprimatur. Bratton Technologies is the venture arm of ex-New York and Los Angeles Police Chief Bill Bratton, who served as an adviser to Oakland Police Department and considers District Attorney George Gascón a disciple. He's the godfather of popular crime-mapping system CompStat, which uses computer data to enable "hot-spot" policing. He's a celebrity cop with deep pockets, tech know-how, and a promotional ax to grind. He'll eventually try to harvest revenue from BlueLine, according to the company's general counsel, Jack Weiss, who wouldn't reveal any details. We picture scores of targeted ads for things that cops like. (Donuts? Gun holsters?)
That's led some privacy experts to wonder if BlueLine serves the interests of its founder more than its user-base. Although Riker touts the service as a "walled garden" that will securely insulate its members from snoops or interlopers -- everyone who joins gets manually "authenticated" as an employee of a law enforcement agency -- lawyers like Peter Scheer of the First Amendment Coalition say that information shared during work hours might still be subject to a public records request. David Greene, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says that any business conducted online could constitute a public record, whether it's done at work or not.
When pressed, Weiss said only that BlueLine would respond to "any court-issued subpoena" demanding that it disgorge content. Such demands have turned mainstream networks like Facebook into battlefronts for user privacy.
Moreover, the network's success depends partly on members' ability to "self-police." BlueLine's terms of service prohibit users from discussing individual cases and posting information that could prove damning or incriminating, were the site ever hacked. But it's up to users to enforce those rules and flag posts for violations.
Such strategies, while common, have imperiled other online vessels -- Craigslist being the prime example. But perhaps they'll fare better among cops.