On September 11, 2014, two gay men were savagely beaten in Philadelphia’s city center. Although the aggressors escaped, police were able to obtain their pictures from security camera footage. What happened next clearly illustrates how powerful social media has become in solving crimes.

The police released the suspects’ photo to the public. Shortly afterward, a Twitter user posted a picture of a group of people resembling the suspects who were posing in an unidentified Italian restaurant. The tweet gained popularity and spread across the Twitter network.

Eventually, a Twitter user in New Jersey identified the restaurant and then used Facebook to see who had recently “checked in” to the location. The amateur cyber detective found the Facebook profiles of the suspects and reported their identities to the police, who were more than happy to receive the tip.

How Often Does Law Enforcement Use Social Media to Solve Crimes?

In the above example, it was concerned citizens who harnessed the power of social networks to aid an investigation. But increasingly, law enforcement agencies are taking to social networks to conduct their investigations. According to a recent poll of American law enforcement agencies performed by Lexis Nexis, a legal news and information company:

  • 86% use social media in investigations at least twice a month and 25% use social media daily
  • 73% responded that social media can help solve investigations faster
  • 75% responded that the use of social media to establish probable cause for a search warrant has never been challenged in court

Despite the clear advantages of using social media in investigations, few police departments formally train their officers on the subject. For now, the use of social media to solve crimes remains largely a matter of personal initiative on the part of individual investigators.

What Can We Expect in the Future?

In March of this year, a British soldier was decapitated in London. A law enforcement department called the Opensource Intelligence Unit used advanced software to comb Twitter to seek patterns in how users were reacting. This technique would allow investigators to determine who was supportive of the attack, giving them an idea of what social networks (both virtual and real life) they may need to investigate in order to find the subject.

The British have also used similar tools to practice smart policing. During the London Olympics, the police analyzed tweets for signs of conflict, and when these tweets centered on a certain geographic area, the police sent extra units there. While American law enforcement has begun using social media to interact directly with citizens and to take on criminals one at a time, it seems that the future lies in the use of software that finds behavioral trends among large groups of social media users.

Can Social Media Hinder Criminal Investigations?

The shift towards using aggregate data from social media sites makes sense because it won’t be long before individual criminals learn to outsmart the investigators tracking them on Twitter and Facebook. From posting false information to giving other people access to social media accounts to confuse the police’s tracking efforts, there are many ways in which savvy criminals can cover their tracks.

Furthermore, well-intentioned citizens may add confusion to investigations when their tips turn out to be false. The media tends to report success stories about social media users helping to stop crime. But for every useful tip, how many false ones does law enforcement receive? During mass casualty events, law enforcement agencies may find themselves flooded with information of which only a fraction may be useful or relevant.

Social Media Posts May Be Used as Evidence in a Criminal Trial

During the prosecution of an Occupy Wall Street protestor in New York, a judge ordered Twitter to hand over the protestor’s deleted tweets, which were then used as evidence in the criminal trial. This means that any incriminating information we post on social media can not only be used in an investigation leading to an arrest, but also to a prosecution resulting in a conviction and possible jail time.

Philadelphia criminal defense attorney Michael H. Fienman is a criminal defense attorney practicing Pennsylvania. Fienman Defense serves all townships in Montgomery County, Delaware County, Philadelphia, and Bucks County. If you’ve been charged with a crime, you can call Fienman Defense today at (215) 839-9529 for a free and confidential consultation of your case.

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