Is Social Media Evidence Too Much for Criminal Investigators to Handle?
In 2004, when Mark Zuckerberg and his Harvard classmates created Facebook, it is unlikely they considered how social media might affect criminal investigations in the future. Over the past fifteen years, social media accounts have become a valuable source of evidence for investigators and prosecutors, and frequently a bane for defense attorneys tasked with providing their clients with a robust defense.
The numbers are staggering. Facebook users upload approximately 300 million photos each day and post approximately 510 million comments every 60 seconds. More than 2 billion people use Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, or WhatsApp daily. Twitter users post approximately 500 million tweets per day— 200 billion tweets per year, while Instagram users create another 95 million posts per day. And according to the Pew Research Group, nearly 75% of the public maintains a presence on multiple social media sites including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Pinterest, and LinkedIn.
With the sheer volume of message traffic transiting across the internet through social media platforms, law enforcement would be remiss to ignore social media accounts as a resource for discovering evidence potentially relevant to a variety of criminal investigations. As Joy Lambert observed, “Social media has changed the way we communicate and the way criminals do as well.” And as Daniel Trottier suggested in Police and User-led Investigations, using social media, law enforcement agencies “[A]re able to obtain potential evidence and actionable intelligence [from sources] that may not otherwise be available to them … Everyday actions and conversations become online content. Archived and searchable, this content can be repurposed as evidence.”
Social networks have become the new, virtual neighborhoods in which the inhabitants of the digitally connected world reside, interact, and share information (both good and bad, intentionally and inadvertently) regarding their personal and professional lives. This reality requires law enforcement agencies be prepared for the future, acquiring the training and tools required to effectively exploit the new sources of evidence that will inevitably drive investigative well into the 21st century.
Finding the Evidence Is Only Half the Challenge
The ubiquitous nature of mobile devices in our daily lives and the use of those devices to access social media platforms creates an unlimited source of evidence that may be relevant to the criminal investigations conducted by law enforcement agencies on a worldwide basis. By 2021, the number of social media users is anticipated to reach more than 3 billion; the US will continue to lead the way with more than 70% of Americans currently maintaining a social media presence.
While the volume of data is increasing exponentially, investigators have become adept at locating and retrieving evidence from social media platforms. Whether surfing the internet to identify open source information or using subpoenas and search warrants to retrieve information through the legal process, law enforcement agencies at the federal, state, and local levels have utilized evidence from social media sources to identify suspects, locate witnesses, and convict defendants:
- A defendant was convicted in the death of a friend when investigators discovered a photo of the murder weapon the defendant posted to her social media account just hours before the murder occurred
- A suspect was charged with the theft of $500,000 in jewelry after law enforcement discovered a video posted to social media in which he bragged about his role in the burglary
- A defendant allegedly used social media to text photos of a victim of sexual assault to friends
- A couple entered guilty pleas to a variety of charges related to the sexual assault the couple streamed live using a social media platform
- A federal law enforcement officer was charged with drug and weapons trafficking and money laundering as part of an undercover investigation in which photos of the suspect posing with the weapons were posted to social media.
Today, nearly every investigation conducted by law enforcement agencies includes a digital evidence component. In fact, if an agency is not actively pursuing the digital aspects of every investigation, investigators are likely leaving potentially relevant evidence on the table. This can be problematic.
As the number of individuals using social media continues to increase, and the volume of digital evidence contained on social media platforms and in social media accounts grows, the challenge for law enforcement becomes how to efficiently collect, process, and analyze the evidence in an effective and timely manner. The solution to this challenge is the acquisition and deployment of state-of-the-art software tools that enable rapid evidence collection, processing, and analysis, irrespective of the manner used to acquire the information; e.g., through open source collections, subpoena, or search warrant.
A comprehensive solution for processing evidence obtained from social media accounts should offer investigators with a 360⁰ view of the data. The ideal software tools will consolidate and enable visualization of the social media data collected from laptops, tablets, and mobile devices, and obtained through a combination of open source collection methods, the issuance of subpoenas, and the execution of a search warrants.
With these tools, investigators can fully exploit:
- Personally identifying data such as contact information, locations, email, and physical addresses
- Friend requests that are accepted, denied, or blocked
- Status updates
- Messages and photos
- IP addresses
- Pages and groups
The Future of Law Enforcement and Social Media
In a 2015 study, the International Association of Chiefs of Police found that 96.4% of law enforcement agencies utilized social media resources, with 88.7% of respondents having used social media in support of their criminal investigations. Additionally, 85.5% of survey respondents reported the use of social media was beneficial in solving cases under investigation.
The explosive growth of technology has forever changed the investigative landscape in which law enforcement officers operate. The continued development and use of social media platforms have created another dimension in which suspects, sources, and witnesses interact and potentially create evidentiary artifacts.
Future technological developments and the ever-expanding use of social media will undoubtedly challenge law enforcement resources and investigative operations as the volume of data that must be collected, processed, and analyzed exceeds capacity. Acquiring the innovative solutions that enable a dynamic response to the asymmetric investigative landscape that is fueled by rapid technology developments will be critical to long term investigative success.