By Elaine Bussjaeger

The notion of the “citizen watch” is tried and tested. In communities throughout the country, neighborhood watch programs operate on a simple principle – you watch my back, and I’ll watch yours. In the ever-advancing technological age, how can this basic concept be modified for a new generation of smart phone-using, social media-minded citizens?

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has taken steps to rally citizens through social media with its Small Vessel Security Strategy (SVSS). Through this, the department hopes to leverage social media engagement as a kind of nautical “neighborhood watch.” Called America’s Waterway Watch 2.0 (AWW), the program uses social media to provide authorities with pre-arranged, on-scene contacts to confirm and report unusual activity.

The ingeniousness of DHS’ program is that anyone who spends time on the water already knows what “normal” activity looks like and what it does not. Just as an unfamiliar car loitering in a neighborhood causes a sense of unease and concern, one who knows the waterways can spot activity that is out of the ordinary and potentially threatening.

According to DHS’ Update Bulletin, after analyzing non-maritime attacks in the U.S. since September 11, in 21 percent of cases, citizen involvement was a significant factor in discovering and disrupting malicious plots. This large percentage proves the citizen’s important role in addressing security issues. No matter how many experts and officials are enlisted to detect and monitor threats, in any situation, empowering the local community to be on the lookout allows security agencies to incorporate intel from a much wider group of concerned Americans.

In reviewing this initiative, immediately apparent are similarities to CNN iReports. CNN encourages average citizens to post newsworthy items to their website, mobilizing an army of social media users to post news items when and where CNN’s news teams cannot. In much the same way, civilians will be able to use AWW 2.0 to provide maritime authorities with information about suspicious activity through social media channels.

This updated version of AWW was tested at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, a major North American port city. The results were promising: active duty and Auxiliary Coast Guard members conducted regional marina visits, instructing marina owners, managers and “live‐aboards” on the importance of attention and how to report suspicious activity. The test reached Facebook users and Twitter followers, and added new members to Citizen Action Network’s alert system.

DHS plans to roll this initiative out nationally, bringing the citizen watch into the social media century. If successful, one questions what other basic concepts can be wedded with social media to achieve a safer, more secure society.

Elaine Bussjaeger is a writer and account coordinator with Adfero Group, a full-service public relations firm in Washington, DC.

Editor’s note: To learn about DHS’ new Small Vessel Security Strategy to be released next year, sign up to attend the Small Vessel Security Threats Conference, February 8-9, being put on by Homeland Security Outlook.