Social media has become as much of an investigative tool for police as it is an “outlet” for people to tell the web-connected world about every moment of their angst-ridden lives.
Just this week, we reported on South Carolina investigators who identified their murder suspect by delving into messages sent to and from the victim’s social media accounts. Last week, we had news of this wanted (and perhaps intellectually challenged) individual who taunted the local cops “catch me if you can,” only to be placed in custody within the hour.
As amusing as those examples may be, they barely scratch the surface of how police investigators can use social media to solve crimes. A newly announced partnership between LexisNexis and a Georgia-based company called DigitalStakeout is illustrative of just how deep into the social media waters police can now dive.
Across the Social Universe
Back in October 2013, LexisNexis announced expanded capabilities to its Accurint for Law Enforcement product through which agencies can “unlock the value of big data from social media, providing the ability to discover risks, threats and gain actionable intelligence.”
The new offering, appropriately named Social Media Monitor, taps into the cloud-based software developed by DigitalStakeout to retroactively replay — and in some cases, watch live — a host of social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube and Instagram.
During my attendance at IACP 2013 in Philadelphia — a week or so after the solution was announced — I visited with Bill Hatfield, who serves as Manager of Federal Government Consulting for LexisNexis, and Adam Mikrut, Founder and Chief Technology Officer of DigitalStakeout. Together, they give me a brief demonstration at the LexisNexis booth on the trade show floor. He explained that the tool has both investigative (backward-looking) and preventative (forward-looking) capabilities, and that because of differences in the user agreements of each unique social media service, those two different uses of the Social Media Monitor product will provide access to a different spectrum of data.
One site may allow for “live feed” directly into the solution, whereas another may not. Further, companies like Facebook, Twitter and others may at any time end up changing those user agreements, so the exact universe of available data sources is a bit like, well, the actual universe.
That is to say, it’s ever-changing. Regardless, the basic use cases (looking back or looking ahead) aren’t likely to vary until LexisNexis and DigitalStakeout intentionally change them.
Looking Back or Looking Ahead
In the case of a detective looking for possible suspects after a crime has been committed, the estimated time and location of the offense can be placed on a digital map, and up will appear the tweets, posts, pictures and videos of people within a specified radius.
Immediately that detective will have a pool of potential witness, and possibly even a social media post containing evidence of the actual act in progress.
In the instance of watching for criminal activity in real time (or even a “Minority Report” mode of seeing indicators of future crimes in the making), you’d have someone at a workstation with a similar map displayed.
In this type of scenario, there might be two areas in which rival gangs are known to operate. The officer can draw virtual lines on a map around each, and tell the software to watch for posts/tweets containing specific keywords (think: “payback” or “turf”) or names/terms specific to those two rival gangs.
When such a word shows up on one of the social media platforms the service monitors, the map would indicate the precise location of that Tweet or post — assuming the phone or device from which that message is sent is a geo-enabled device.
Either way, from what I saw at IACP, the user interface is intuitive — I got the idea in two minutes of watching the demo — and the potential for its crime-fighting value obvious.
Watching from the Cloud
As I took in the presentation late last year, one of the obvious selling points for the solution that occurred to me is that it’s not a stand-alone product. It’s an add-on to the suite of LexisNexis software services already in use by law enforcement agencies across the country.
Because it’s cloud-based — known also as Software-as-a-Service (or SaaS) — an existing Accurint customer has little more to do than learn the software. The folks at LexisNexis / DigitalStakeout do all the installation stuff on their end.
According to LexisNexis, “four out of five” in a survey of about 1,200 cops already “utilize social media sites to help with investigations, and three of four non-users intend to begin using social media for investigations this year.”
There’s no denying that the future of investigations will increasingly involve digital evidence left (and then found) in the cyber world, and this solution is yet another step in that direction.