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Social Media: Online Investigation

Online social networks are already proving themselves invaluable assets to law enforcement. Websites such as Facebook and MySpace provide suspect leads; communities are alerted to missing children and area threats through law enforcement-generated Twitter feeds and e-mail.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

Photo: Mark W. ClarkPhoto: Mark W. ClarkA mere decade ago, there was relatively little in the way of digital social networks. Facebook wasn't so much as a glimmer in its creator Mark Zuckerberg's eye, MySpace was still on the drawing board, LinkedIn was nowhere on the horizon, and Twitter was just a word.

Today, a click of a mouse establishes business contacts from coast to coast and "friends" half a world away. From raising celebrities' profiles to toppling governments, social networking has asserted itself as perhaps the most consequential form of communication since Johannes Gutenberg first experimented with movable type. And there are various permutations still to come-holographic interfacing, for example-so its true impact may not be realized for some time.

But as illustrated in television exposés such as the "To Catch a Predator" segment of "Dateline," social networks are already proving themselves invaluable assets to law enforcement. Websites such as Facebook and MySpace provide suspect leads; communities are alerted to missing children and area threats through law enforcement-generated Twitter feeds and e-mail.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has gone so far as to generate memos encouraging its Office of Fraud Detection and National Security to exploit social networking sites in investigating targets. A recent survey by the International Association of Chiefs of Police indicates that the USCIS has plenty of company. Of the 728 agencies polled across 48 states and the District of Columbia, more than 62 percent acknowledged using social media in criminal investigations; 40 percent said that they use it to solicit tips.

Allowing insight into potential threats, aiding in the identification of criminal associates and sympathizers, and increasingly the bulwark of many a criminal prosecution, social networks' greatest appeal as investigative tools perhaps lies in their accessibility. Many social networking sites—Facebook most conspicuously—openly promote themselves as public forums, so legal experts deem content published therein as fair game for use in criminal investigations. Unencumbered by "knock and notice" concerns, unburdened by otherwise obligatory warrants, cyberdetectives can readily access subjects' philosophies, lifestyles, and personal histories. And the person is voluntarily giving up the goods, sans Miranda, sans warrants, sans bloodshed.

It is counter-intuitive that so many people would be so seemingly hellbent on getting themselves arrested. To be fair, sometimes it's less a matter of people intentionally screwing themselves over than the doctrine of unintended consequences at work.

Take the example of Daniel Arment, an alleged serial burglar. Arment was tracked down by Eagle (Colo.) Police Department sergeant Gordon Chicoine. Interrupted during a home burglary, Arment left behind a bag with several items that bore his name. Armed with the suspect's name and a public Facebook profile, Chicoine contacted some of Arment's 120 Facebook friends. "Just as we would for any other investigation, we were looking for friends and family," says Chicoine. "In this case, we used Facebook." Arment was taken down as he indulged in New Year's revelry at a bar in the Boulder Broker Inn.

Some criminals will go so far as to don disguises in their bids to avoid detection. But Anthony Wilson's one-dimensional wardrobe of baseball caps and hoodies found the marked man marking time before investigators matched his Facebook images to those retrieved from surveillance video of several Detroit area bank robberies. The fashion bandit was indicted on five counts of bank robbery earlier this year.

Tales of stupid criminal tricks involving social networks are not hard to find.

  • Two years ago residential burglar suspect Jonathan G. Parker was taken into custody in Pennsylvania after apparently leaving his Facebook page open on a victim's home computer.
  • In 2010, a fugitive was so helpful to the Lockport (N.Y.) Police Department that investigators left a thank you note on his Facebook page. After failing to report for sentencing on an assault charge, Chris Crego considerately updated his Facebook and MySpace pages with details of the Indiana city he had moved to, his place of employment, and the hours he worked.
  • Yakima County (Wash.) Sheriff's Office deputies tracked down a 19-year-old suspect after he'd boasted on Facebook that he had successfully eluded deputies on his motorcycle, including a picture of the bike he'd used in his flight. Rousted out of bed with a 4 a.m. wakeup call by deputies armed with both a search warrant and a printout of the Web page, the poster acknowledged he was the rider. He was charged with reckless driving and other infractions.
  • With exhibitionists' zeal, Stephanie Martinez and her boyfriend, Ricky Gonzalez, used Facebook to virtually proclaim their responsibility for a bank robbery. On March 21, Martinez's page had a post that read, "GET $$$(,." On March 24, the day after the robbery, Gonzalez's Facebook post read, "WOKE UP DIS MORNING! BUST DOWN A SWISHA!!! LOOK IN THE MIRROR LIKE I'M ONE RICH ... WIPE MY TEETH WITH HUNDREDS WIPE MY *** WITH DIS 50s :$:$:$:$:$:$." This was followed on March 25 with a post by Martinez announcing "IM RICH *****" on Gonzalez's page. The day before, investigators said Gonzalez posted "U HAVE TO PAST THE LINE SOMETIMES!! TO GET DIS MONEY!!" on Martinez's page. Brought in for questioning, Martinez admitted her involvement in the robbery.

Why do people provide so much incriminating information about themselves online? "Perhaps it's the illusion of anonymity," says attorney and law blogger John Richards. "Perhaps it's the fact that everyone else is cavalier with their personal information online. In any case, we've known for years that this type of carelessness can get us into trouble. Yet, it seems that most people have to learn the hard way just how much damage it can do in real life."

The USCIS says that the "narcissistic tendencies" of those engaging in fraudulent activities finds them "friending" large numbers of people they don't even know, which provides an "excellent vantage point for FDNS to observe the daily life of beneficiaries and petitioners who are suspected of fraudulent activities."

Regardless of why people indulge the proclivity to implicate themselves online, there is no shortage of others trying to save people from themselves. Divorce attorneys offer online counsel against posting certain pictures online. encourages visitors to use the SWIM defense when it comes to incriminating posts: "Someone Who Isn't Me."

Social networking has also proven itself a double-edged sword, permitting predators a new modus operandi by which they may engineer just about every crime imaginable.

Besides corralling pedophiles, Websites such as Facebook have found people telegraphing their punches well ahead of time.

There was little brotherly love evident this August in Philadelphia when 20-year-old London Eley reportedly posted an offer of $1,000 for anyone who would kill the father of her child. Investigators say that 18-year-old Timothy Bynum responded that he'd do the killing. Both were taken into custody and a .22-caliber handgun was retrieved from Bynum's home.

Sometimes, there isn't enough to take a subject into custody, or the significance of his or her posts isn't realized until too late. Such was the case with Jared Loughner, the 22-year-old suspect in the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others at a Tucson grocery. Loughner had railed against the government on Websites weeks prior and had confrontations with community college police officers.

On MySpace and YouTube pages, a man who identified himself as Jared Loughner posted anti-government messages that talked about mind control and suggested he would soon adopt a new consciousness. In the hours immediately preceding his attack on Giffords and others, Loughner posted to his MySpace account, "Goodbye... Dear friends ... Please don't be mad at me."

Another Arizona murder suspect, David "Nick" Delich, sent threatening MySpace messages to former friends and posted a blog that said, "Soon, I plan to kill many police officers," and posted photos of handguns and assault rifles he owned. A few months later, Delich admitted to shooting and killing Tucson police officer Erik Hite.

Such portentous entries may not be discovered in time to prevent a tragic crime, but police agencies worldwide would be wise to monitor social networks during outbreaks of widespread violence. The British government expressed concern about the use of Twitter and Blackberry's instant messaging to incite the recent riots and looting sprees in London. While little can be done to prevent the surge of electronic chatter in this type of situation, London police responded with increased patrols at targeted hot spots. In the aftermath, two men were imprisoned for four years for their part in orchestrating the civil unrest.

The New York City Police Department has reportedly established a social media unit to mine a variety of online networks for signs of illegal activity, as well as clues to aid investigations. Sifting through the sea of publicly accessible online information makes for straightforward, albeit tedious, investigative work. Knowing where the next open house party will be held helps officers keep an eye on raucous crowds and stave off violent acts. Using facial recognition software to match a suspect with an online profile aids convictions.

But not all criminals so blatantly expose themselves online. Just as cops for decades have gone undercover to catch the neighborhood flasher, rapist, or drug dealer, some departments now go undercover online to catch underage drinkers and child predators.

Deb Shinder, owner and CEO of TACteam and an expert on network security, openly expresses concern about the ethical quandaries of police online activities. "Should policies and guidelines regarding police behavior be different online than in traditional investigative situations? And if so, how?"

For years, police have created fake online profiles posing as minors to lure unsuspecting pedophiles out from behind their computer screens. With the pedophile community growing ever more adept at circumventing such traps, few would dispute the desirability of using such ploys to place child predators behind bars. Similarly, some campus police departments have taken to creating fake profiles in order to "friend" college students, copy photos of campus parties, and then slap the cuffs on coeds for underage drinking. Some would call this entrapment; others call it routine undercover work.

It may take a few years for case law on computer crimes and the means by which computer investigations are handled to evolve. Keeping abreast of each will only prove more challenging as the technology becomes more sophisticated.

"For many people, there is a disconnect between the online and physical worlds," notes Shinder. "And they behave very differently when they don their online personas. Mostly the perceived anonymity changes behavior for the worse-we see people who would never be rude to someone in 'real life' engaging in flame wars, people who never physically cheated on their spouses having virtual affairs, and so forth."

An internal review by the Vancouver Police Department following the 2011 Stanley Cup riot found that social media was instrumental in encouraging members of the crowd to engage in violence and lawlessness. As stated in the report, "The 2011 riot can be distinguished as perhaps the first North American social media sports riot and the acting out for the cameras seen in the 1994 riot was multiplied many times more in the 2011 riot by the thousands of people cheering the rioters on and recording the riot with handheld cameras and phones."

Shinder notes that the reverse may also be true. "People who are brash or unpleasant offline become much more circumspect when they know it's all 'on the record,' perhaps to survive for decades on someone's server somewhere."

Police departments will continue to exploit social media in new and more creative ways to enhance investigations.

In the meantime, visitation of Websites such as Facebook and MySpace will expand beyond criminal investigations. From profiling prospective jurors to a review of a complainant's Website content, various facets of the judicial system can see where ideological hands have been tilted and where true agendas lie. MySpace content has been used as a determinant factor in criminal sentencing based upon the attitudes articulated through defendants' posts.

There are other concerns, as well. Arrests generated through social networks may inspire retaliatory attacks against law enforcement agencies. Already, the Websites and e-mail accounts of several law enforcement agencies and officials have been taken over by hackers sympathetic to others within their ranks who have been taken into custody.

One thing is sure. In its continued pursuit of the bad guy, the long arm of the law will continue to reach out into the cyberworld.


NYPD Forms Social Media Unit

About the Author
Author Dean Scoville Headshot
Associate Editor
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