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Law Enforcement Turns to Social Media

By Tracey Dowdy

You know how you use Facebook to track down old crushes, prom queens, your 7th grade arch nemesis, see who got fat or bald, and to check into your child’s friends? No? Just me? Nice try. You know you’ve done at least half those things.

It turns out we aren’t the only ones using social media to do a little investigating. Increasingly, law enforcement is turning to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other forms of social media to track down criminals. And with the amount of information that the average person is willing to put out there, it isn’t surprising that it’s become such a useful tool.

Law enforcement has been using social media in investigations since the MySpace days, but it’s only in the last few years that it has become such an essential tool. With the exponential growth of sites like Facebook (approx. 1.26 billion users), LinkedIn (238 million users), and Twitter (500 million users), law enforcement has easy access to what used to be confined to personal conversations or photo albums.

After the 2011 Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver, citizens engaged with the Vancouver Police Department to provide video and photos of the riots, which were then used to identify perpetrators. Citizens liked that they didn’t have to go down to the station and fill out a report. Engaging online resulted in over 1,000 emails in just four days.

One of the best examples has to be how NYPD officers in Brooklyn took down the “Bower Boys” – a group of teenage burglars from Brooklyn. What devious undercover tactics did they use to infiltrate the gang? Officer Michael Rodrigues simply requested them as friends on Facebook. You read that right. The gang accepted his friend requests and all Rodrigues had to do was sit back and let them dig their own graves.

Gang members reportedly bragged about their crimes, including one who posted, “It’s break-in day on the avenue” tipping off detectives to an upcoming heist. The officers pieced together the information in the posts and were able to use it to build a 102 count indictment against the gang for crimes ranging from theft to sexual assault. At least one gang member warned the others about their posts, but his concerns were laughed off and dismissed by the others.

Obviously, not all criminals are this careless. So, law enforcement has had to step up its game in order to keep up. Sites like ConnectedCOPS.net exist to “enhance law officers’ ability to succeed with social media tools by providing insight, encouragement, education and the overall support required.”

Not only do the law enforcement authorities use social media to catch criminals, they use it to prevent crime as well. After a soldier was murdered on the streets of London last March, British police officers monitored Twitter to gauge public reaction. Similar tactics were used during the 2012 Olympics and, if certain conflict keywords were trending, officers would increase their presence in potential trouble spots.

The principles apply to white collar crime as well. Investigators of insurance fraud regularly look in on Facebook activity to determine if claims may be fraudulent. Chances are the guy posting vacation photos of wake boarding in the Caymans may not be suffering from the debilitating back injury he’s claiming.  Even grammar is scrutinized, as investigators at credit bureaus watch to see if individuals really are native English speakers as they have stated.

As we have all been warned countless times, whatever you put out there is out there forever. Deleting a Tweet doesn’t make it go away. In fact, after the Occupy Wall Street protests, a New York judge ruled that Tweets are public and therefore not protected as private speech. Prosecutors applied the ruling against one participant whose deleted Tweets were then used in the case against him!

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Toronto, Ontario. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances and researches on subjects from family and education to pop culture and trends in technology.

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