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    This Open Source Script Lets You (and Police) Search Twitter For Guns

    Written by

    Louise Matsakis

    Contributor

    Photo: Paul Townsend/Flickr

    Wouldn’t it be nice if the next time a woman received a threatening message on Twitter she could quickly scan the perpetrator’s account to check whether they posted a gloating picture of their new pistol?

    Or, in the wake of a shooting, if law enforcement could swiftly search the account of a suspect, to check if they had ever tweeted a picture of the alleged crime weapon?

    It’s now possible to do both of these things, thanks to a free, open-source tool designed by security researcher Justin Seitz as a part of his larger open-source intelligence project.

    On a wider scale, the technology could be used to analyze the weapons used by large terrorist organizations or gangs. In the past, Seitz has used similar techniques to track the social media profiles of Detroit gang members, and to identify ISIS members on Twitter.

    “I was roaming around various social media profiles and noticed there were a lot of guns being waved around. This led me to the research question of: can we find the guns first, and look at the people second?” Seitz told me over email.

    Image: Justin Seitz

    The tool Seitz created relies on an application called Imagga, which analyzes images for their content. By plugging it into Twitter’s API, the tool can then scan a user’s account for weapons.

    “The script effectively hunts through a target profile looking for photos, and then does some very simple image cropping to "chop" up the image to try to isolate areas of the photo that might contain a weapon,” Seitz told me.

    Currently, it can only search one account at a time, but Seitz said that it wouldn’t be difficult to adapt the tech in order to continuously crawl through Twitter looking for weapons. The tool also might run into problems if it's run on an account with a lot of pictures, because Twitter’s API only allows for 3,200 pictures to be analyzed at a time.

    Image: Justin Seitz

    In a country where there are now more guns than people, it’s relieving that there’s a relatively simple way to track whose hands at least some of them are getting into. What’s also great about the project is that it allows anyone with a small amount of programming knowledge to search through social media for interesting data, instead of paying an expensive data miner to do it for them.

    Seitz envisions that the project could be used to help law enforcement actively investigating cases, journalists, or anyone else interested in mining image data from social media. He also emphasized that the same sort of script could be used to detect almost any object, not just guns.

    “I think the big thing is that I want people to realize that with little (or zero) budget, a small amount of coding knowledge and a dash of creativity they can create interesting tools to solve interesting problems,” Seitz told me.