Date and place of birth: 1975 in Kotka.

Family: I have two small children and a wife.

Education: Police College.

The internet is… a great place – I think that covers it!

Guns are… dangerous in the wrong hands.

The most unusual thing about my job… would be my colleagues not taking the piss out of it.

My favourite cop movie or TV series is… The Shield is my favourite cop series on TV.

Marko Forss, the 2011 police officer of the year, helps to maintain law and order in cyberspace.

DOES the internet seem safe to you – or do you think of it more as an ungoverned no-man’s land where trouble lurks behind every corner, waiting for an unsuspecting visitor?

Although the latter description is doubtless hyperbolic, it seems an unfortunate truth that where there are people, there is also crime. And as social media sites are becoming a natural extension of people’s lives, also the amount of online crime is most likely to grow.

But the Finnish Police has made preparations for such developments. Sergeant Marko Forss and his two colleagues, who represent the police force on the internet, answer questions, intervene when crime is detected and prevent crime thanks to their online presence. There are also other “cyber cops” scattered across Finland who do web policing occasionally, but the bulk of the work is done in the Police headquarters in Pasila, where Forss’s team works.

Forss, the first policeman of his breed, was awarded the Police Officer of the Year title last year. SixDegrees spoke to him about his team’s pioneering work, his un-nerdy past, and why the media is wrong about online hate speech.

Many children want to be a policeman when they grow up, what did you want to be?

In secondary school I thought I would go study in a business school and work in business, and I also thought about becoming a judge. But I was too lazy when it came to hitting the books, so I applied to the police college instead. I had always been into sports, but the idea came only during military service.

Were you a nerd as a teenager?

No, I can’t say I was [laughs]. I did have a Commodore 64 and later an Amiga, but the first PC I bought was in 2005, which shows the level of my nerdiness. I’d say that I’m a typical policeman who has done lots of other things that don’t involve computers but who ended up becoming involved in nerdism.

What makes a policeman of the year?

You have to be accomplished in some way in your line of police work. My award came from my work in social media. Every year a particular field is chosen for the award, and the last time it was the internet and social media. The previous year it was police dog operations.

How did you celebrate?

• In 2011, Forss’s team replied to a total of 540 emails; in 2010
the number was 420.
• Facebook is currently the team’s main operating environment,
as there were over 2,100 discussion threads last year, while in
2010 there were 1,000.
• For IRC-galleria the numbers have declined, as a lot of its
users have now moved elsewhere: the police received 6,300
messages in 2011, down from 16,000 the previous year.

I didn’t celebrate that much. I have small children at home so big parties are pretty rare these days anyway. At the workplace, my workmates gave me a small present and we went out for pints.

How did your career as a “cyper cop” begin?

It began when I was transferred from fieldwork to the office in 2007. I investigated cases of domestic violence and crimes of minors. The web and IRC-galleria, which had its golden period then, seemed to come up often during investigations. But to access IRC-galleria and see the messages there, you had to have a profile of your own. I figured that I could of course create a fake profile, but I might as well create one as a policeman.

So I asked around to see if my colleagues would laugh at the idea. I also looked into youth work done elsewhere and contacted IRC-galleria. Then I presented the idea to my superiors, who gave me permission.

In the beginning, it was very small-scale. I got a laptop and the go-ahead to use some of my working hours on this. I created my profile on IRC galleria in September 2008. But this activity expanded quickly as I received a lot of messages, and soon I wasn’t able to work on other cases anymore. It’s been busy ever since, and I’ve learned a lot about police work and social media. I had never studied the law this much before – you really have to be active.

Do you think what you do is more demanding than regular police work? Why is that?

Because there are no ready formulas for this work and the laws date largely from the paper era, it’s not always evident how they apply to the web, and such questions need to be considered carefully. For example, cases of sex crime or defamation on the internet are not straightforward. So all in all, I don’t just chat with children on social media, as some might think. In fact, most of our clients are grown-ups, and the scope of what we do is really vast.

I did fieldwork for nine years, so I know that part of that job consists of certain basic scenarios such as theft, pick pocketing and so on. But with the internet, there are few established procedures, and no-one to ask advice from. I wouldn’t recommend this to a newly graduated police officer, as you need to have some experience to draw from.

It sounds as if you and your colleagues are pioneers of sorts.

Well, we do create practices as we go, and the job is changing all the time. For example, Facebook has emerged as a major platform during this time. We’re doing some reprioritising now, and will concentrate more on social media in future – if you look at how often social media is mentioned when crime is reported, it really shows that everyone’s there.

How do your peers in the police force see your work?

Well, in the beginning even I wasn’t sure what I was doing. But I soon discovered that it was important work, and back then I also worked a lot off duty. I’m sure there are still some colleagues that don’t think much of our work. But I can compare the amount of work we do with anyone, and I work more than I ever did when I did fieldwork. I also feel that I can make a bigger difference. I say this without underestimating fieldwork, of course.

What occurs during an average day of work for you?

I come to work, switch on the computer, grab a cup of coffee and see how many millions of messages wait for me. I start replying to them, and take further measures when necessary, for example by passing information forward. We work on several cases at the same time, and sometimes we work on particular cases for weeks. Then there are trainings and seminars that we attend or where we give presentations. And we give interviews to the media.

Do you wear a uniform when at your computer?

No, right now I’m wearing a worn brown t-shirt, and in the summertime we even wear shorts. We put on the uniform when representing the police officially.

You’ve been quite a lot in the media because of your work. Do you ever feel that you get too much publicity?

Well, I’d say that I do get my share. Could be that half of the police force already hates me for it. I have no need to be in the limelight, but if I’m asked to comment on something that relates to what we do, I’ll do that. But questions about hacking or online fraud I pass on to other people.

What kind IT equipment do you have? Do you use a smartphone?

No, I don’t use a smartphone for work, and our computers are basic PCs. We don’t need special equipment as we don’t work on technical issues or need to remain undetected. On the contrary, our job is to be visible.

What crimes do you deal with mostly? And who are the criminals on the web?

Defamation, unlawful threat and child sexual abuse are the most common crimes for us. Then there’s fraud, which has become more common online but not really in social media.

The criminals are just plain, normal people. In cases of abuse we mostly deal with common, Finnish family men, or twenty-something guys. With defamation and unlawful threats, both men and women cross the line. Often these relate to school bullying, or to an ex-couple’s argument that goes too far. Before, name-calling or intimidation would have happened on the phone, but now it has also gone on the web.

Do you think there will be more online police officers in the future? Is there a need?

Yes, there will be, and yes there is. Social media is now part of people’s everyday life, so also the police will work in it more and in different ways in future. Already now there’s plenty of work: I get about 300 Facebook messages per month, for example. As the idea is also to develop the work, there’s a need for more resources.

The way I see it is that we are like police cars that patrol the internet instead of the roads. If you think about how many police cars there are on the go, and how many people use the internet, it’s clear that there could be more of us. I don’t see it in terms of additional expenses either, more the opposite. One internet officer causes there to be less police work elsewhere.

Take a case of someone spreading private information about his or her ex online, for example. If the police intervenes, it’s usually enough to put an end to this. Otherwise, it could lead to a crime being reported to the police and the police starting investigations. This takes time and resources, and could be prevented with a few messages on the internet, before things go too far.

In fact, our online presence is pre-emptive, as people are aware that the police are on the internet. Only a couple of years ago it wasn’t that obvious, especially among the young. I remember questioning a 15-year-old girl with her parents and opening her IRC-galleria profile page. She was horrified at the idea that her parents would see that – though it was on the internet for anyone to see.

How about different social media platforms, are some less safe than others?

Security is usually found between the computer and the chair, which means that services in themselves aren’t safe or unsafe. Some sites, especially Facebook, stand out in terms of sex crime and hate speech, but that’s because they’re generally so popular. Facebook has become like a little internet in itself.

One problem that seems to be linked with social media is hate speech. Has it become more common in your experience?

Already in IRC-galleria there was what was called back then more generally misanthropy. There were skinhead and Nazi groups, but it wasn’t discussed that much. Now the issue has surfaced in the public discourse. But I actually think you journalists have exaggerated the problem. For example, the latest figures are from 2010, and back then only 2 per cent of all hate crime took place on the web. This mostly consisted of a few agitations against an ethnic group. I don’t think there was a radical increase last year.

I think that because of the current political atmosphere, online hate speech is exaggerated as a phenomenon. If you look at how rare criminalised hate speech really is when compared to comments that may be hurtful or offensive to some but which still fall under the kind of expression that is protected by freedom of speech. Often what happens is that someone goes on to write something foolish, and the next thing it’s in the news. And the click-hungry media often pushes the reporting to the extreme. Calm, reasoned discussion doesn’t fit into this, as it’s easier to splash a sensational headline as soon as someone let’s something stupid out of their mouth.

The most common type of hate crime is still an assault in a public place. The internet may change attitudes and connect dangerous groups and the issue should be addressed, but you also need to be aware of the reality of the matter.

“Because of the current
political atmosphere, online
hate speech is exaggerated
as a phenomenon.”

I follow the situation daily: there are a few dozen active people who create Facebook groups and so on, and they get a lot of influence through social media. But I remember hearing racist comments quite commonly already in secondary school. I think people have become more sensitive to the subject, which is good, but it has gone to the extent that it’s difficult to talk about these matters without being categorised in one of the two camps. We should be able to discuss topics like immigration honestly and through facts.

What would be the number one issue you deal with then?

We’ve been highlighting sex crime for some time now. As a problem, it’s many times worse than hate speech. The lives of many young people have been devastated for a long time because of it. The internet is an easy way to reach the young and cause destruction. Also, bullying has more concrete effects than hate speech. Hate speech doesn’t have that kind of immediate consequences as an adult abusing a child through a webcam, for example.

What tips would you give to parents regarding their children’s internet use?

You need to be interested in what the child is doing there just as you’d be interested in what they do in the real world, where they go and with whom. And it’s important to talk to them about these issues. A lot of the young might open up if they were just asked if someone has ever tried to harass them sexually.

Teemu Henriksson