Police departments across the country have been turning to social media for a variety of case-related issues. From finding missing persons to gathering evidence, social media has become a bountiful source of information for law enforcement officials.
Social Media Helps Cops Fight Crime
- Gather evidence: Social networking sites are full of pictures and messages that can become evidence to convict lawbreakers. All content shared publicly is fair game for prosecutors. Private posts are also admissible as evidence if a friend with access shares them with officials.
- Locate criminals: Officers can find criminals or predict where they’re going next by looking at their geotagged photos, status updates and check-ins.
- Find missing persons: Detectives can see where a missing person was last located, who they were with and where they might have been planning to go. Civilians can share information about the case with their network, instantly expanding the search and possible leads for law enforcement.
- Unveil confessions: Some criminals can’t resist bragging about their illegal activities on social media – and their friends aren’t the only ones listening. Police can use photos and statements as confessions in court. Although all U.S. citizens are guaranteed a Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate themselves, social media posts are sometimes admitted as evidence with less scrutiny from judges than traditional confessions receive.
- Connect affiliated lawbreakers: Police can search photos, posts and friend/follower lists to see which known criminals consort with one another. They can gain access to personal messages with a warrant, subpoena or neither in cases of emergency if there’s a credible and immediate threat of violence.
What Sites are Involved and How?
Police use many popular social media sites:
The companies running these sites aren’t always eager to help investigators. Twitter rejects requests for government access to user data without a subpoena. The site is in an ongoing legal battle for refusing to comply with a court order to turn over a suspect’s tweets and location information. Facebook allows emergency access to users’ data and has a 24-hour hotline staffed with a legal team to handle these requests.
Internet-based Law Enforcement Echoes Real Life Tactics
Before attempting to gain access to a suspect’s private posts through official channels, police will often go straight to the source by using undercover methods.
Cops create fake profiles then send a friend request or ask to follow the suspect. Once accepted the officer gathers information for their case.
Creating fake profiles is against most sites’ terms of service, even for police, but the practice is not illegal. The evidence gathered can still be used in court.
Social media has informants as well. Anyone connected to a suspect can come forward and give authorities information from their account.
The U.S. isn’t the only country in which police use social media to help with investigations.
Spanish police have used their Twitter account to conduct what they call “tweet raids” which guarantee anonymity to followers who help solve dangerous cases. The process involves police sending out a crime alert on social media and inviting people to respond to a private email account with information about the case. According to the department, this method has helped arrest more than 500 people suspected of drug trafficking since 2012.
The French government has said it will now leave finding missing persons up to social media instead of authorities, except in cases involving children, the mentally ill or suspected foul play.
What’s Next for Police Use of Social Media?
Although a majority of law enforcement agencies use social media to fight crime, few have policies and procedures in place to govern its use, and even fewer provide training to officers. This lack of guidance can make some evidence inadmissible, and has raised Fourth Amendment violation concerns for groups like the American Civil Liberties Union.
Law enforcement’s ability to use social media isn’t likely to go away, but is likely to face more scrutiny and regulation in years to come.