How Social Networks Can Help Law Enforcement Solve Crimes
Social media is changing every aspect of our lives — how we see each other, how we buy things and listen to music, how we communicate. It’s even changed our idea of privacy.
For criminal investigators, social networks can be a treasure box of evidence, but with a caveat: The legalities of social media evidence collection are in constant flux, as the justice system and case law struggle to keep pace with emerging technology.
In 2012, Lexis Nexis (a provider of online research services for journalists and legal investigators) did a study of the impact of social media on law enforcement in criminal investigations. The results showed that 4 out of 5 respondents use social media networks in their investigations, citing the following investigative activities, among others:
- Identifying potential witnesses
- Pinpointing the location of criminal activities
- Gathering evidence that may serve as probable cause for a warrant
- Researching criminal networks
The study says that Facebook and Youtube are by far the most used platforms, though definitely not the only ones.
Other reported results showed that:
- Two-thirds of interviewed law enforcers believe social media can help solve crimes more quickly;
- Social media can provide evidence for getting a warrant, and 87% of the time, these warrants hold up in court even when challenged;
- Only 20% of officers had been trained in how to use social media as part of the criminal investigations—the rest were self-taught.
For more, see Lexis-Nexis infographic, “Social Media Use by Law Enforcement.
Police know that social media users with a criminal bent often brag, share their intentions, or even plan crimes on Facebook or Youtube or MySpace — and here’s where the law gives police a lot of help: No search warrant is needed if a “friend” decides to share incriminating pics, posts, or videos.
Social media is not private. (It’s social, duh!) When someone “friends” you, they gain access to everything you post, and they have the right to share it with the police (or anyone else, for that matter).
Case in point: With Friends Like These
Suspected New York gangster Melvin Colon wasn’t ashamed of who he was. He posted lots of updates, including gang signs, threats to rivals, and depictions of violent acts. One of his Facebook friends shared the info with law enforcement, and police gathered enough evidence via Colon’s FB profile to indict him.
When Colon’s attorneys moved to suppress evidence, citing the Fourth Amendment, the court ruled that “Colon’s legitimate expectation of privacy ended when he disseminated posts to his ‘friends,’ because those ‘friends’ were free to use the information however they wanted—including sharing it with the Government.”
Here’s the kicker: If your privacy setting is “friends of friends,” then those friends of friends can also “share” your posts with police. And if you’ve selected “public,” everyone on earth can share your information.
Facebook spokespeople have made it clear that unless privacy settings excplicitly say otherwise, Facebook is a public forum, and all information published on the site should be presumed available to the general public.
The “Best” Crimes for Social Media Investigators
It’s obvious that social network services are being used more and more in legal investigations. And in certain categories of cases, social media can be a slam dunk for evidence collection. A few examples:
1. Firearm possession
It’s pretty straightforward: If you post a picture of yourself using or in possession of a firearm, and you don’t have a permit, you’re in deep.
In 2006, police arrested a Colorado teenager for underage possession of a firearm after finding pictures he’d posted on MySpace. He was convicted 2 months later.
2. Face identification
After the 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup riot, police were able to apprehend many of the culprits through social media. In a concerted community effort, citizens sent police 1,011 links to social networks (where potential evidence was posted), along with thousands of emailed videos and photographs. Police then issued a public call for citizens to help identify people in the photos and videos; multiple arrests followed.
3. Pedophilia indications
Facebook employs software that quietly scans suspicious posts (and flags them for follow-up by human investigators). In one case, a Florida man pled guilty to soliciting a minor after the software captured his online messages to a 13-year-old girl.
Although Facebook has had some success with flagging sexual predators using this technology, other social networks (with little or no will to filter suspicious content) have become a far safer haven for those seeking child victims. Sadly, tech-savvy teens often find these shadowy online worlds far more quickly than law enforcement does. The rising popularity of smartphone use among teens and preteens has also presented a dangerous loophole for predators.
For more, see this excellent Reuters report: “Social Networks Scan for Sexual Predators, with Uneven Results“
4. Gang communication and extremist groups
Although domestic gangs and extremist groups worldwide often have an online presence, nailing down evidence of their criminal activity isn’t always so simple.
In an Arizona State University criminology study last spring, gang members reported that they were well aware that law enforcement was watching their online activity: only one-fifth of gang members said that their gang had a social networking site or Web page, and one-fourth admitted that their gang uses social media to keep tabs on other gangs.
According to a September USA Today article, gangs and extremist groups have begun turning to Twitter as a favorite social media tool for disseminating their nefarious messages—broadcasting gang signs or fundamentalist propaganda behind a nearly anonymous handle. One horrific recent example is the terrorist group al-Shabab—the group tweeted taunts to law enforcement and a chilling defense of its violent methods, all in real time during the mall attack in Kenya.
Occasionally, officials can follow a Twitter thread straight to the culprits: Last year, New York law enforcement arrested more than 40 gang members and tied them to a string of murders, shootings, and robberies by deciphering the members’ braggadocious postings.
When it comes to online bullying, new technologies seem to emerge faster than parents — and police — can get a handle on them. A recent example is Snapchat, a social networking app that sends messages and photos straight to a user’s cell phone…messages that vanish after a 10-second view, leaving no trace.
With several heart-wrenching recent cases of bullied teens attempting to end their lives (and some who, sadly, did commit suicide), police and the courts are struggling to define when this kind of ugly online activity constitutes an indictable offense.
6. Assorted misdemeanors
Alcohol policy violations, indecent exposure, and petty theft — all of them can, and sometimes have been spotted thanks to social media.
moral: Next time you’re shoplifting whilst drinking underage and wearing no pants, PLEASE—post a record of your exploits on Instagram. Your local lawman will thank you.
So there you have it — a glimpse into how social media can work to help law enforcers and investigators. This is, of course, a growing field, and as the influence of social networks grows in our lives, so will its impact inside the courtroom.
About the author:
Larry Harrison is a forensic pathologist and the co-founder of ITSGOV.com — the complete forensic science and crime scene investigation resource on the web.