Social Media and the War on Crime
You share a lot on Facebook and Twitter, and these bits of information are helping police create fingerprints to solve crimes.
The Thin Blue Line Between Safety and Privacy
With the rise of the Internet, criminals found new ways to wreak havoc. And as a result, police are mining social media to help serve and protect. But that raises questions about privacy, unreasonable search and public safety. For example, law enforcement can browse Facebook, like anyone else, find evidence to build a case. But what about creating fake accounts? Or trying to more data than what's publicly visible? Do they need a warrant to get access to it?
The problem with answering one question is that several more bubble up. But crimes don't wait, and while society debates the best course, police are charging ahead and using digital data in their investigations.
The Police and the Social Media Bandwagon
The New York Police Department formed a unit to search Facebook and Twitter, among other sites, a year ago, responding to the increased use of the Internet by criminals who plan and celebrate illegal exploits online.
The encryption BlackBerry Messenger, among other messaging services, makes it difficult for police to track and thwart crimes, since they often aren't as tech-savvy as the criminals. But they're making strides to bridge the digital divide, and using techniques that are slowly catching on in departments around the country.
According to a LexisNexis survey, four out of five of federal, state and local officials used social media to gather intelligence during investigations, and most said it helps them solve crimes faster. Facebook has the most evidence, followed by YouTube.
New York officials didn't respond, so it's unclear what, if any, kind of training the city gave their social media unit, but LexisNexis said four-in-five officers are self-taught, while nearly one-in-two say they use lessons learned by collaborating with colleagues or from their personal lives. Only one-in-five said they attended a seminar on the subject, and a mere one-in-ten said they received formal training on social media investigation techniques.
These informal techniques are giving agencies ways to follow often elusive suspects, and criminals have wised-up -- and are more careful about boasting online. But, they may not be smart enough.
Facebook Friends and Foes
Like everyone else, criminals see the value of online communication, and they often plan crimes on social media because of its ability to connect to others anywhere at any time. And, while they find ways to mask and shield their messages, law enforcement is working equally hard to discover evidence.
In one case, a New York gang member made posts on Facebook containing references to past crimes. He restricted the view, making it hard for law enforcement to track. But they accessed his account by recruiting one of his friends, and from there, collected evidence to make the arrest.
The suspect claimed his posts were private, and thus, obtained through illegal means. But, last month, federal judge William Pauley ruled his privacy ended when he shared data with friends. In other words, when you post on Facebook, no matter if you restrict the view, that data can be given to police and used against you.
Law enforcement often looks at a suspect's friends list to find known associates or relatives to give them an open door to the account. Even if you set privacy settings to the highest setting, police can often mine data by looking at a friend's activity feed -- or scouring friends of friends.
If that fails, they can create fake accounts to befriend you to view your private posts, among other tactics. By some estimates, one-in-ten Facebook accounts are fake -- a practice the site says it doesn't support.
For most cases though, officials ask for private data directly from the sites themselves, through subpoenas and warrants, or making an emergency request if there's an imminent threat of danger. And companies usually comply.
Police are increasingly tech-savvy at using digital fingerprints to uncover crimes. When computer hacker Higinio Ochoa posted a scantily-clad image of his girlfriend, for example, authorities identified the exact street and house -- from GPS co-ordinates embedded in the iPhone photo -- and arrested him.
For police, technology remains a top priority. It's an effective method to gather evidence to fight crime and gang activity. But at the same time, lawmakers are growing concerned about violating privacy rights and the boundaries of the law. The balance between protection from criminals and consumer privacy is a delicate one, and maintaining that will be essential for both companies as well as law enforcement.
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Categories: News Desk | Social Media