AT&T Technology Sponsorlogo

Turn Their Gadgets Against Them

"I love Facebook!" came the shout from the cubicle next to mine. One of my fellow detectives here at the Boulder (Colo.) Police Department—through a simple Internet search—had just discovered the identity of a sex assault suspect.

"I love Facebook!" came the shout from the cubicle next to mine. One of my fellow detectives here at the Boulder (Colo.) Police Department—through a simple Internet search—had just discovered the identity of a sex assault suspect.

The suspect was a distant acquaintance of one of the victim's friends. The detective only knew the suspect's first name and a general physical description. By logging on to and searching all of the involved players' social networking accounts, specifically their online friends, the detective located an individual with the same first name as the suspect. The rest of the investigation stemmed from this simple Internet search.

This is just one example of the role that technology plays in modern criminal investigations. Cell phones, iPods, computers, PDAs, digital video, and other such devices are deeply woven into the fabric of our society. Why not exploit this social phenomenon to help solve crime?

Social Networking Sites

I must admit that while I'm computer savvy, I have no interest in the modern phenomenon of social networking, although my wife—who admittedly is a few years younger—thinks Facebook is the best thing since sliced bread. Millions and millions of Americans have a MySpace or Facebook account. These are free social networking Websites that allow users to set up accounts.

These accounts revolve around a home page. The home page can include a staggering amount of biographical information as well as links to photographs and other online members listed as friends. In the example above, the detective was able to learn the suspect's full name, date of birth, telephone number, home address, and e-mail address, all from the biographical information he included when he set up his account.

Of course, there's never any guarantee the information is correct. In this case the detective downloaded a photograph of the suspect that he had uploaded onto the page. The victim identified the suspect, and the rest of the case came together from there.

Recently an employee at a local coffee shop told me that his apartment had been broken into over the weekend. We were talking about the details of the burglary when he told me that he thinks the suspect knew he was out of town. I asked how somebody would know he was gone. He replied that he posted he was "Skiing in Vail for the weekend" on his Facebook account the morning he left town.

This individual told me that he has more than 300 "friends" that have access to his home page. He doesn't know all of these individuals well enough to trust them. He thinks that somebody broke in because they read his status on Facebook and knew he wouldn't be at home. This is another example of how social networking sites can relate to criminal investigations. In this case it might be warranted to sit down with the victim and go through his or her "friends" to identify possible persons of interest to the investigation.

Social networking Websites are becoming more important in other types of crime, too. I investigate persons crimes, including sexual assaults. I have learned the status and actions of victims, witnesses, and suspects around the time of the crime simply by checking their Facebook or MySpace accounts and reading their blogs or text entries about what they were doing at that time.

Police are not the only ones looking at these sites. I've learned that defense attorneys are starting to look at these sites as well. A local attorney recently told me that he routinely checks social networking sites for anything that could possibly discredit a witness or victim.

For example, he told me that he was defending a client who was accused of sexual assault. The attorney logged onto the victim's MySpace account and discovered numerous photos of her in various stages of undress with different men, including the suspect. These photos were taken at a bar earlier in the night where the sexual assault is alleged to have occurred. I don't know the outcome of this particular case, but the photos were brought to the district attorney's attention. Many police departments are checking social networking sites as a routine part of pre-employment screening, too.

So how do we cops access these social networking Websites? I personally created both and accounts that I use only for work purposes. You just need to enter some basic information, including an e-mail address.

I created a new e-mail at for this purpose. I don't use it for anything else. I included some generic falsified personal information, but my homepages are essentially blank with no photographs or anything else. A basic user account allows you to search for members, see their friend lists, and see their homepages, depending on the security settings.

Many users control access to their homepages by requiring you to be a friend before you can navigate to their homepage. Facebook includes the "Add as Friend" icon where you can request to be someone's friend. My friend requests have been granted by people that have no idea who I am, so it's worth a shot. Of course, depending upon the investigation, it's also possible to execute a search warrant on any of these social networking sites to gain access to people's private information.


Cell Phones

In addition to social networking Websites, I've seen cell phones playing an ever increasing role in criminal investigations

Cell phones aren't just for phone calls and voice mail anymore. They are powerful handheld devices that can take photographs, videos, send and receive text messages, and even allow the user to surf the Internet and check e-mail. They can provide enormous amounts of critical information to criminal investigators.

Often cell phone records are the best way to establish an accurate timeline surrounding a criminal event. The dialed and received call logs and text message logs include the date and time the call or message was placed.

However, all of the information contained in the phone can't be retrieved by simply executing a search warrant with the cell phone carrier. The printed record generally only includes a call log, not text messages, photographs, contact list, etc.

If we do have the phone, there's specialized hardware and software that will allow us to gather all of its data. But even after using this specialized equipment, my department's forensic cell phone technician actually uses a digital video camera to videotape the cell phone's LCD screen. While video recording, the cell phone technician carefully accesses every possible bit of information on the phone such as contact lists, text messages, incoming and outgoing calls, videos, and photos. This is often the best way to perfectly preserve and record all of a cell phone's data.


The New Pawn Shops

Starting in the late 1990s, I spent four years in our property crimes unit. Back then when I looked for stolen property, I made weekly runs to local pawn shops in and around our city. I also searched the area flea markets.

How times have changed. Some crooks still fence their stolen property the old-fashioned way, but our property crimes detectives seem to be spending just as much time searching on their computer these days as they do pounding the pavement.

Ebay and Craigslist are two of the largest Websites out there that allow individuals to sell their personal property. These are also the first two sites our detectives check when trying to track down stolen property.

In order to sell on Ebay (, the seller must be registered. Still, we've seen numerous stolen items show up on Ebay. We've also had crooks take stolen property to stores like Sell It on Ebay. These businesses allow individuals to drop off the items they want to sell and the store takes care of the rest. The store keeps a percentage of the sale price and sends the rest of the money to the seller.

Craigslist ( is one of the largest, if not the largest, online classified advertising sites on the Web. It's broken down by region or city. The advantage of Craigslist for thieves is that there's less of a paper trail than selling items on Ebay. The down side for crooks is that these transactions generally take place in person.

A crook only has to post the stolen item for sale on Craigslist. A potential buyer contacts the seller via e-mail. The two parties then agree on the specific method of purchase.

Many property crime victims are even taking an active role in looking for their stolen property. I work in a city with a large university; we have a lot of property crime involving bicycles and laptop computers. And our agency has actually had victims locate their stolen merchandise online even before the case has been assigned to a detective.

From this point, the detective can pose as a potential buyer and set up a meeting with the seller. If things go right we can recover the property and make an arrest at the same time.

Note: Websites like Craigslist also offer a new way for prostitutes to solicit their services. A lot of vice units are now routinely checking these classified ads when working prostitution cases.


Smile for the Camera

Most YouTube videos are harmless. However, type something like "how to break into a safe" or "how to hack a computer" and see what comes back.

I think sites like YouTube ( affect law enforcement in two ways:

First, they show techniques to potential criminals so they can learn how to commit crimes. Second, users have actually uploaded video of crimes being committed.

An example that comes to mind is an assault involving numerous high school students. One of the participants videotaped the assault using his cell phone. This video was subsequently uploaded to the Internet.

Another student found the video online and contacted police with the information. The video clearly showed all of the individuals involved in the assault. Since no one was talking, the video was critical during the criminal prosecution.

Finally, speaking as a bomb technician, Websites like YouTube scare me because they show people constructing and using dangerous devices like chemical bombs and sparkler bombs. These devices are illegal and dangerous and lots of kids are getting injured by building such devices.

I've only been a cop for about 14 years. But when I started my career, we hand wrote most of our reports, digital cameras cost many thousands of dollars, and the Internet was very different than the Internet of today. Google wasn't in our vocabulary yet.

The point here is that technology is rapidly evolving for both cops and bad guys. Consequently, criminal investigations need to adapt to keep up with all the changes. It's up to us to make sure we stay ahead of the curve.

David Spraggs is a major crimes detective and certified bomb tech for the Boulder (Colo.) Police Department. He is a member of the Police Advisory Board and a frequent contributor.

About the Author