Cops Monitor Social Media for Clues, Crimes

Posted August 9, 2012 in Criminal Law by Courtney Sherwood


Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media are transforming how cops and prosecutors do their jobs – and should make you think twice about your digital movements if you ever get in trouble with the law.

Four out of five law enforcement officials said they use social media to help solve crimes, according to a new survey by information provider LexisNexis Risk Solutions (a sister company).

The survey found that federal, state and local-level agencies in both small towns and big cities are using popular digital tools to identify people, find out where they are and gather evidence, with Facebook and YouTube among the most popular platforms for investigators.


Solving and Preventing Crimes

Provocative or threatening use of social media may draw law enforcement’s attention even when a crime has not been committed, or statements made online may be the crime.

For example, 19-year-old Kent State University student William Koberna was arrested and charged with the felony of inducing panic and misdemeanor aggravated menacing after he Tweeted a threat that he would shoot up the Ohio campus .

Cops also use social media to communicate with the public and ask for help solving crimes, as happened recently when the bodies of 12-year-old Amber Whitlow’s parents were discovered in Arkansas, and the girl was nowhere to be found.

Peter Sartes

Posts about her disappearance were shared more than 3,000 times on Facebook, and use of terms related to her disappearance spiked on Twitter in central Arkansas, according to TV station KARK

The girl was found alive and safe within four hours. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says social media has played a key role in tracking down the 98.5 percent of missing children who were the subject of Amber Alerts from 2005 to 2009.

These stories may be good news for crime victims, but they also offer warnings for the rest of us.

If you’re a suspect in a crime, law enforcement could use your digital updates as evidence against you, or could just use your photo to identify you and your posts to track you down, according to Peter Sartes, a Florida criminal defense attorney.

People may also not realize that if they vent their frustrations online, they could be committing a crime. Greg Ebersole said he was just venting when he posted about killing his ex-wife on Myspace in 2008, but a Pennsylvania court found that his posts were a violation of his parole, because his ex-wife could reasonably come across what he’d written and construe it as a threat, according to Sartes.

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His advice:

  • Remember that everything you post on social media is likely to be archived forever.
  • Consider your security settings — are your online posts visible to all, including cops, or have you set up privacy restrictions?
  • Do you allow anyone to be your “friend,” even if you don’t know them personally? If so, it’s possible that law enforcement can still see what you’re doing.
  • Don’t post about legal proceedings you’re involved in, especially your thoughts about a judge or victims in a crime, even if seems like “mindless chatter.”
  • When in doubt, cancel the account. 

Click here to read more about managing the legal risks of social media.

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