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In the online hunt for criminals, social media is the ultimate snitch

Facebook Computer
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“I’d been looking for this robbery suspect. Detectives were at a dead end; I decide to look and see if the guy has Facebook. He does, completely unsecured, and had just ‘checked-in’ at a strip club. Search the lot, find a car matching the description of what he was seen leaving the robbery in. Turns out to be stolen. Wait for him to walk out, ID him, bring him to the detectives with their jaws hanging open. Guy admitted to it all. I didn’t even have to use my A.K.”

This is a story one officer (who wishes to remain anonymous) has in his arsenal of social media related arrests – and it’s quickly becoming a familiar one.  While an arrest itself might be full of movie-made drama – hands up in the air, guns out, doors kicked open, suspects chased, handcuffed, and read Miranda Rights – what actually gets the authorities to that moment can involve ample time scrolling through Facebook updates and Twitter feeds.

But those hours spent cruising Twitter and refreshing Facebook aren’t idle. Police departments all over the world are using the Internet to their advantage, as social networks are proving to be the perfect crime-solving partners.

The police officer cometh

We live in a time of rampant oversharing, where perpetrators often leave an online bread trail so extensive it makes Hansel look like he had a gluten intolerance.

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Facebook is now one of the most fertile sources of criminal evidence, but it wasn’t always this way. Though Facebook launched in 2005, it took police and investigators awhile to fully recognize its potential. Since it was initially used only by college students, many of the first incidents where police or campus authorities used Facebook as evidence involved the violation of alcohol policy at specific colleges – however, using Facebook for more serious crimes wasn’t far off. In 2008, a Cincinnati police officer named Dawn Keating, a specialist at the unit’s Real Time Crime Center, worked with the University of Cincinnati to identify important gang members using Facebook. Fox News said she was the first police officer in Cincinnati to use social networks for evidence.

From 2007 to 2010, London police reported crimes linked to Facebook skyrocketed 540 percent. Agency use of Twitter followed a similar trajectory, with interest starting small but growing along with the network’s popularity. 

Nancy Kolb, the program director who oversees the center for social media at the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), says there were certain forward-thinking police departments that started venturing into social networks as early adopters during the MySpace days, but this really took hold later. “It was around 2009, 2010, 2011, where we really saw an exponential increase and huge growth in terms of law enforcement agencies using social media.”

“It was around 2009, 2010, 2011, where we really saw an exponential increase and huge growth in terms of law enforcement agencies using social media.”

While police are turning to social networks more often than ever, it wouldn’t appear users are growing wiser to it: A man in India was recently arrested for trying to sell his grandson on Facebook, while a woman in Oklahoma was arrested for trying to sell her children via the social network. A teen was also taken into custody after bragging about a boozed up hit-and-run on Facebook – in fact, officers were alerted about the crime thanks to a private Facebook Message from another user who’d seen the perpetrator’s antics on their News Feed.

Another truly exceptional case of questionable Facebooking: a British man stole $130,000 worth of jewelry and fled the country … later returning to the U.K. on vacation under an assumed identity, and posted pictures of his trip on Facebook. Police monitoring his social media saw the photos and tracked him down.

Authorities’ methods don’t always stop at monitoring – sometimes they even interact with suspects Brooklyn police officer caught a group of young men known as the “Brower Boys Gang” by adding them as friends on Facebook (they accepted his friend requests) and then watching them brag about crimes. They broadcast plans to commit a burglary as a status update, so police trailed them and jailed them – and acquired plenty of evidence along the way. 

The stories are never-ending. In all of these cases, people and their Internet addictions made it all too easy for the police to unearth their crimes.

Tightening their techniques

Not every suspect makes it so easy to pinpoint their criminal activity, but police strategy has come a long way since the early days of Facebook. The methods police and private investigators use to trawl social networks have grown much more sophisticated in the past few years, and their presence ballooned considerably. Connected Cops, a website that focuses on how police use social media, made an infographic using BrightEvent’s data on how police use Twitter – there are over 772 official Twitter handles, in eight different countries.

police common topics
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Officers Twitter strategies are growing savvier. After the gruesome attack on a British soldier in London last March, a police unit called Opensource Intelligence Unit used software to comb Twitter to analyze how people were responding. This monitoring of social networks to try and gauge public mood was also used during the London Olympics: If keywords suggesting conflict emerged, police increased their presence in those locations.

Kolb explains the resources available to help police have also grown exponentially. “There are a lot of tools out there. Some are free, some are available at a cost to manage and monitor social media, ranging from criminal activity to just being aware of when someone’s talking about that particular agency on social media. In terms of event management, especially large events, agencies are going to pay attention to social media. Not just for threats or criminal activities, but just to be aware of problems related to crowd control, traffic, or something of public safety.”

While police originally just sought out crime on social networks, their involvement with sites like Facebook and Twitter has expanded considerably. Now the police prioritize public outreach, soliciting tips, and recruitment efforts through social media. There are Facebook pages and Twitter accounts for specific departments, and police use these forums to relay important info to their followers. During the 2011 flooding of Queensland, Australia, the police department’s Facebook page became a vital source of updates, warnings, and news. Their Twitter feed also became a primary line of communication, and the Director used an iPad to post on-the-go – a far faster method than traditional media outreach. 

The IACP commissions blog posts explaining some of the new ways police departments are using social media. According to the blog, some departments are creating their own Instagram accounts to engage with the public and counter negative portrayals. The Baltimore Police Department clearly “gets” Instagram, posting a mix of pictures of officers in the field and the office, plus the occasional mug shot. Screen Shot 2013-06-25 at 3.02.18 PM

Sometimes the police use social media for outreach and prevention at the same time. In Minnesota, police began live-tweeting drunk-driving arrests from their Twitter account in an effort to use shame to detract people from getting behind the wheel after too many drinks.

During the Stanley Cup finals in 2011, the Vancouver Police Department found themselves relying on Twitter when major riots broke out. The VPD posted lighthearted tweets at the beginning of the series in a community outreach effort, which were well received. Constable Anne Langley, the social media officer, used HootSuite to monitor public sentiment. After riots began, the police continued to engage via social media, even using the trending tag #canucksriot. As the IACP points out, the VPD’s Facebook “likes” grew by 2,000 percent and their Twitter followers increased substantially during this time, as people sought out information.

Just as the Internet makes it easier to catch criminals, it also makes it easier for citizens to report police abuse.

After the riot, the VPD used the Internet to make it easier for residents to send tips about illegal behavior, and Langley was surprised by the quality of response – people liked cops they could tweet at and engage with online! The fact that Vancouverites had a venue to talk to police that seemed less formal than the rigmarole of coming down to the station and filling out paperwork enticed many citizens to step forward online. As the blog notes, “More than 1,000 emails were received in the space of four days, many of which contained images, videos, or links to websites or Facebook pages. Never before had VPD experienced this volume of email or ‘citizen journalists’ submitting potential evidence of riot suspects. Not only was the public submitting photos, but hundreds of supportive tweets and emails were received.”

Private investigators at credit bureaus are also growing more socially sophisticated. Bloomberg reports that several credit bureaus and payment companies have started testing the use of Facebook and LinkedIn as a way to confirm identities and prove fraud. Some of their efforts are as simple as checking a picture, but they even look at the grammar people use on social media to determine if they’re actually native English speakers, as they’ve indicated. 

When social media monitoring crosses boundaries

Social networks aren’t inherently good or bad: You can use them as tools to to solve crimes or commit murders. While Facebook sleuthing has led to arrests that most people would categorize as fair, this isn’t always the case. Peaceful protests have seen many of their demonstrators arrested thanks to social media. During the Occupy Wall Street protests, a New York judge ruled public tweets don’t enjoy the same protection as private speech, and ordered Twitter to hand over deleted tweets from one of the participants, which prosecutors used as evidence.

There’s always the potential for police to overstep the lines of undercover and sting operations into entrapment territory. Now, entrapment is notoriously hard to prove, since you have to show the police caused you to commit a crime you otherwise wouldn’t have committed. Since that usually doesn’t happen, shows like “To Catch a Predator” can resort to tactics that might appear like blatant set-ups, but since the perpetrators seemed intent to commit the crime from the beginning, it’s not entrapment. On social media, this means police may be in the clear to add suspects as friends, but if they are the first to bring up wrong-doing they may jeopardize their case by opening the door for an entrapment defense. For instance, if a police officer sends a message that says “You want to buy some weed?” and a suspect says “yes,” the fact that the police initiated the conversation apropos of nothing the suspect knew about is grounds for an entrapment defense.

We all want to cheer when the bad guys get caught thanks to their social networking hubris. But when the tables are turned and police use these platforms to arrest someone for protesting or political dissent (or used entrapment to snare a suspect), it’s harrowing.

One thing that evens the ledger? Just as the Internet makes it easier to catch criminals, it also makes it easier for citizens to report abuse. The protests occurring in Brazil have grown more passionate after footage of police brutality during the first days made it online, urging more demonstrators into the streets and focusing global attention on abuses. Social media is a powerful tool, and it gives those in power the ability to run much more intense surveillance on the plugged-in population than they could in the past. 

Kate Knibbs
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Kate Knibbs is a writer from Chicago. She is very happy that her borderline-unhealthy Internet habits are rewarded with a…
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