According to a report, an anonymous Instagram account was discovered last week which revealed the identities of witnesses to violent crimes. Under the username @rats215, the account featured photos of over 30 witnesses, along with pictures of classified police reports, testimonies, evidence, and details relating to grand jury proceedings. Since its creation last February, the account has amassed around 8,000 followers and shared 150 Instagram posts.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer (which first reported the account’s existence), the account encouraging followers to send information to expose “rats” was discovered by a local policeman after he found photos of witnesses in a 2012 attempted shooting on Twitter. “We work with Philadelphia police to investigate vigorously and thoroughly any attempt to intimidate any witness, to identify perpetrators, and, where appropriate, arrest and prosecute,” Tasha Jamerson, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia district attorney’s office, told the Inquirer via email. While she declined to comment on investigation particulars, she stressed that witness intimidation is “a very serious, ongoing problem.”
Although the @rats215 has been suspended since Thursday after being brought to Instagram’s attention, the fact that most of the information posted on the account weren’t available publicly has purportedly prompted the First Judicial District to consider banning cellphones inside courtrooms. Current courtroom policies actually require people in attendance to turn off all mobile phones and keep them from plain sight, but it’s not being strictly enforced.
How the modern world is going to deal with accounts like these remains up for debate – literally. Efforts to ban cellphones have reportedly been ineffective in many cities. “It poses a logistical nightmare. Because inevitably, people simply don’t get the message,” Keel said. “They show up, they say, ‘What am I supposed to do now? I need to be in the courtroom.’ Then you have to make room and make space for lockers, and make sure that they’re secured.”
The person behind the @rats215 account is still unknown – if found, he or she could be charged with witness intimidation.
Exposing people’s identities is becoming commonplace online, and in some cases, those who do it have their hearts in the right place. Apart from accounts like @rats215 designed to give both convicted and suspected criminals an upper hand, we’ve got MafiaLeaks, a site for mob victims and whistleblowers that hopes to shed light on the identities of mafia members. Arguably, this is a more noble cause since it concerns outing criminals, but it still raises questions about what platforms should be responsible with the transaction of such critical information.