Social Media and Serious Crime part 2 – Pandora’s box

There has been lots written about the use of social media in the recent UK riots, and perhaps I will return to that subject in the future. In these posts however, I want to focus on how police forces can use social media in serious and major crime investigations, and talk about some of the potential downsides that this new technology offers.

Part 2 focuses on some of the potential downsides of social media in major crime investigations.

People will be well aware by now of the use that social media can be put to by criminals – the use of SM for organising criminal activities such as riots received widespread coverage in the press recently. There are however other aspects of social media in policing that are not as well discussed.

  • Covert operations – much of policing relies on covert operations of one sort or another. For the conspiracy theorists out there, this is well regulated (mainly by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, or RIPA). Covert road sign - image from Nobody Knows I'm Elvis via Flick'rDespite the promises of Hollywood, much of this covert work requires old fashioned surveillance – people following other people, on foot or in vehicles. The rise of mobile technology means that a number plate can be traced by anyone in an instant (via DVLA’s website), and facial recognition has come a long way, meaning that it won’t be long before criminals can check a photograph of an associate against the memory of the Internet. If you posted 10 years ago on your Facebook page that you were looking to join the cops, then the resultant matching of your face to that post could be a serious matter. If you just have an unusual surname, then a simple Google search will reveal much about who you really are.
  • Crowd Sourcing of anti-police information – I have posted before about the use of social media to counter police ‘kettling’ tactics in public order situations, but the uses for the technology can  go far wider than that. The Website Who’s a rat describes itself as the “largest online database of informants and agents”. It’s mission is described as “definitely not an attempt to intimidate or harass informants or agents or to obstruct justice. This websites purpose is for defendants with few resources to investigate, gather and share information about a witness or law enforcement officer.” Even given that aim, the uses to which this could be put need to be understood by police forces engaged in covert work.
  • Covert tactics – forgive me for not going into detail here, but there are plenty of sources on the Internet where covert police tactics are discussed and revealed. Often the source for these leaks are police forces themselves, who are after all staffed by humans who sometimes reveal information that perhaps they shouldn’t. In the pre-Internet era, this would usually have limited consequences, but the power of the information age means that any slip can be shared and kept alive for years, and a number of small pieces of information can be amalgamated, jigsaw like, into a complete picture of tactics.
  • Criminal tip offs – criminals can use the instant, always on social media tools to warn one another. One recent example from aUKforce springs to mind where an admission of criminality was placed by an individual on their Facebook profile, only for their friends to note that this was evidence and should be removed. In that case the police were already aware, but all too often as criminals get more savvy it will be only the stupid ones that get caught.

None of this means that you shouldn’t use social media. In fact you need to understand it – positives and negatives alike – and only once you have an understanding can you take a conscious decision on how and where to use it, and when it may not be appropriate.

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6 Responses to Social Media and Serious Crime part 2 – Pandora’s box

  1. Pingback: Social Media and Serious Crime part 2 – Pandora’s box | Policing news |

  2. Dan G says:

    Police need to tap into the rich data of social media and supplement their investigation techniques to include SM. There’s more to social media law enforcement.

  3. Thanks for the link Dan. I totally agree that all too often investigators and others are unaware of what is going on in cyberspace all around them. I wait for the first court case where the defence point out evidence that the police should have been aware of on social media sites…

  4. Bryan Avila says:

    I completely agree with you Justin. Law enforcement must remain aware of what is going on around them in cyberspace. I have seen how SM has been used in a very powerful way by LEO’s and also the negative aspects of it. Thank you for a great article.

  5. Social media is merely the latest development in criminals’ attempts to avoid detection. The difference is that the speed of change (compared to the introduction of fingerprints or DNA testing) is incredibly fast. For a discussion of this issue you might try:

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