The long arm of the tweet

New survey says 80% of law enforcement personnel use social media to conduct investigations

Criminals take note: Police are getting better at using social media to find you.

In a recent survey of 1,200 law enforcement personnel, four out of five said they use social media to conduct investigations to identify persons of interest, criminal activity, and associates connected to a person of interest.

"Cops have figured out that people put enormously detailed information about themselves online," explained Lee Altschuler, a Federal defense attorney in the Bay Area of California.

Altschuler has experience on both sides of the courtroom: when he left in 1998, he was the Chief of the Silicon Valley Branch Office of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Northern California. While working as a U.S. Attorney, Altschuler saw first hand the growing use of data when working Federal criminal cases. Today, as a defense attorney, he believes "online data use is exploding."

[ See also: Facebook's most wanted: Social networking has a dark and hilarious side of ill-conceived criminality. Here are some of Facebook's dimmest crooks (and smartest detectives). ]

Altschuler sees many law enforcement agencies in medium- to large-sized cities either using social media to conduct investigations or gearing up to do so. That's because from the agencies' perspective, there is a vast harvest of information to be reaped, and there are little to no privacy rights extended to persons of interest and suspects online.

How much information can be gathered? Look no further than the 2011 Stanley Cup Riots in Vancouver, BC. By examining hours of video and social media posts made during the event, a taskforce was able to post pictures of over 100 suspected rioters online -- over 30 of which were identified by police.

But it's not just the big events that can be data mined. Even suspects who are quiet, and limit contact on social media only to known friends can be tracked.

"Cops will figure out who the associates of the suspect are," Altschuler explained. The police will then friend or connect to the associates, working to gain their trust, and then will eventually friend the target directly, or be able to glean information about the target through the associates.

In 2007, for example, a detective in Newark, NJ tracked the alleged killers of three college students by mining MySpace pages maintained by the suspects and their friends. In another, pictures and prose posted online by the killer of a 17-year-old Virginia college freshman connected suspect to the victim and revealed where her body was. (See: Cops learn how to walk their beats online)

Investigators will also use social media platforms to actively locate a suspect. This is often done in narrow cases, Altschuler said, such as a focused and coordinated attack on child pornography rings. One strong characteristic of such criminals is that they are collectors, and almost always reach out to share with other collectors. If law enforcement officers can leverage a known suspect's knowledge, they can use that to identify other suspects. If they're lucky, Altschuler added, they can flip the suspect and gain knowledge about other criminal activity and persons through that person's own account.

Barricades to use

Even though two-thirds of agencies surveyed believe that social media helps to solve crimes more quickly, not every officer is able to implement social media as much as they could.

37% of respondents said they were unable to access social media during work hours citing department regulations and technology obstacles to using social media. 17% said they simply didn't have enough time, and a full third of law enforcement personnel believed they don't have enough knowledge to use social media properly.

The knowledge gap is pretty wide, too. 80% of law enforcement described themselves as self-taught in social media skills for investigations either by navigating social media sites, or bringing their own knowledge of using social media tools.

That statistic is likely discouraging to someone such as Cynthia Navarro, owner of Finnegan's Way, a consulting firm that specializes in training police on how to use social media more effectively for investigative work.

Navarro often works with agencies with little-to-no previous technical expertise amongst the front-line police.

"Law enforcement is not within the technology world, and often this is their first exposure to this kind of information," Navarro said.

But they learn fast, and are often surprised by the amount of information about criminal suspects that can be found on the Internet.

Navarro demonstrates to her students just how much information is available, and more importantly where it is found and how to better conduct searches. Usually, as an example, Navarro will reveal detailed information about the officers themselves to underscore the value of social media, and to help them understand the need to lock down their own online presences.

"Google only gives them three percent of what's really out there," Navarro said. She instructs police to look beyond basic search sites, and actually search on the social media platforms themselves.

And even then there are ways to improve the searches. A person's age will often make a big difference on where to start. For instance kids, Navarro emphasized, are migrating away from Facebook to platforms like Twitter and Instagram. Older suspects are still hanging out on Facebook and even MySpace. Law enforcement searches on the right platforms can reap many nuggets of information.

Navarro echoed Altschuler's comments on the sheer amount of information that's out there, if you know where to look.

"Social media is a valuable tool because you are able to see the activities of a target in his comfortable stage," one respondent to the LexisNexis survey described. "Targets brag and post illicit valuable information in reference to travel, hobbies, places visited, functions, appointments, circle of friends, family members, relationships, actions, etc."

This is not exactly a new phenomenon. When he was a prosecutor, Altschuler said he could not count the number of times he would be listening to a wiretap tape and a suspect would say something like "we'd better not talk about this, there could be a wiretap"... and then promptly continue to discuss the criminal activity on the same call.

Excessive use of data?

Altschuler is concerned, though, that the excessive use of so much data, whether from social media or other electronic sources, may lead to overuse.

Altschuler cited recent reports from cellphone carriers indicating they responded to 1.3 million demands for subscriber information last year from law enforcement agencies. The reports from the carriers, prepared for Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), indicated that police and other agencies were looking for text messages, caller locations, and other information for investigations.

"On a wholesale basis, no one quarrels with the idea that criminals need to be prosecuted," Altschuler said. "On a retail basis, however, we have to question the success rates" from gathering so much information. Altschuler rhetorically doubted 1.3 million search requests really generated an equivalent number of arrests or convictions.

The defense attorney is concerned about overuse for two big reasons.

First, too much dependency will be placed on social media information gathering. "It's a huge waste of time when law enforcement runs down dead ends," Altschuler said.

Second, on a broader level, the overuse of social media data "dramatically alters the historical balance between government and citizen," he cautioned. "The government can obtain data few people would be comfortable with them possessing."

In the pursuit of justice, it's a shift in balance that law enforcement agencies are clearly taking advantage. Citizens and law enforcement agencies will soon have to come to terms with just how far this can go.

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