How do investigators use social media tools to monitor criminal activity?

Many criminals have put damning evidence of their crimes on social media, but gang culture may lead members to make such missteps more than it would for individual offenders


Law enforcement agencies are leveraging social media services such as Facebook and Twitter in a number of ways to help fight crime and serve their communities. Of particular interest is the rapidly evolving use of social media monitoring tools to find evidence of criminal activity which the criminals themselves often post to the Internet — often leading quickly to their arrest and imminent conviction. 

To understand the pace at which investigators are increasing usage of this ever-evolving digital landscape, we need look no further than some of the data revealed in a recent survey of active federal, state and local law enforcement officials conducted by LexisNexis in 2014. 

Of those surveyed, 81 percent said they use social media for investigative purposes, 67 percent percent indicated that social media is a valuable tool in anticipating crime, and 73 percent believe using social media can help solve crimes faster. According to the survey, investigations leveraging social media grew in 2014 and is expected to continue to grow, with 78 percent of respondents saying they expect to use it even more over the next year.

Gang Culture, Hubris, and Digital Evidence
Many criminals have posted damning evidence of their crimes on social media, but gang culture — where bragging about an individual’s exploits is often aimed at increasing that person’s position in the hierarchy as well as attempting to intimidate competing gangs — may lead members to make such missteps more than it would for individual offenders.

Rick Graham — who now serves as Law Enforcement Business Development Specialist for LexisNexis Risk Solutions and previously was Chief of Detectives (ret.) for the Jacksonville (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office — told PoliceOne that social media monitoring tools have been very effective identifying associates and persons of interest, as well as locations of criminal gang activity. 

For example, the city of Cincinnati has been recognized as an early adopter of social media as a tool for gang investigations. In 2008, that city “dismantled” a local gang, including arresting 71 individuals after an extended investigation using social media.  

“From Minnesota to New York, law enforcement officers are using social media in the pursuit of gang activities,” Graham said. “Social media is currently playing a part in the trial of three gang members in Louisiana,” he added. 

Evolving Landscape of 21st Century Investigations
The 2014 LexisNexis survey indicated that 76 percent of respondents said the use of social media as probable cause for a search warrant has never been challenged.

“By posting and sharing on public social media sites, gang members — in the eyes of the court — often lose their expectation of privacy,” Graham said. 

Graham said that although social media information alone is generally not enough to provide a conviction, it is another viable tool for law enforcement to collect evidence. That tool, however, must be used properly (in compliance with laws and agency policies, for example) and requires training.  

Unfortunately, many agencies aren’t using a monitoring tool — instead too many department personnel are still manually scouring individual social media sites, which is a time-consuming process. 

“Moreover,” Graham said, “this is being done predominately by individuals who are not formally trained in how to use social media data as evidenced in our recent survey results which reported 75 percent are self-trained. There is a clear opportunity to provide investigators and analysts with more robust training and social media monitoring tools which will undoubtedly improve overall efficiency and effectiveness of the investigation.”

One of the key advantages of using a purpose-built social media monitoring solution is that you not only get the tools, you get a dedicated team of people watching out for changes in the law and ensuring the system you’re using is in compliance. A 2013 LexisNexis whitepaper entitled ‘How Social Media is Changing the Face of Investigations’ contains a passage which is true today as it was when it was initially authored:  

“It is imperative that agencies are compliant with how they use information obtained via social media sites within their investigative process. Without clear guidelines, your agency is open to potential violations of 28 CFR Part 23. Tools like Social Media Monitor provide an archive function to preserve information gathered that is legally compliant and admissible in court. Social Media Monitor keeps an agency compliant with laws related to intelligence gathering and ensures that departments will be able to admit this evidence in court.”

Graham explained, “Well-trained personnel can play a huge part in crime prevention and discovering individuals who are planning to do wrong — both local gang members as well as domestic and international terrorists. Gathering a mountain of evidence from social media and being able to properly analyze it transforms raw information into ‘actionable intelligence’ and results in the effective deployment of valuable resources.”

Graham concluded with five best practices for consideration:

1. Ensure that training procedures mandate that information is properly vetted and corroborated before declaring the information actionable (similar to how you treat an anonymous tip).
2. Ensure that the information obtained by using social media is used to augment the investigative process as opposed to being the sole source of information.
3. Use social media to identify and assist with locating potential witnesses to a critical incident.
4. Use social media as an effective means to gather timely information pertaining to situational awareness during an in-progress critical incident (as in a school shooting, SWAT situation, or hostage negotiation).
5. Ensure your agency has formal processes and policies in place.

About the author

Doug Wyllie is Editor at Large for PoliceOne, providing police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug is the 2014 Western Publishing Association "Maggie Award" winner for Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column, and has authored more than 1,000 articles and tactical tips. Doug hosts the PoliceOne Podcast, Policing Matters, and is the host for PoliceOne Video interviews. Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers' Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).

Contact Doug Wyllie

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