Social media has become so ingrained in our society that it's often hard to separate it from the rest of our lives. If there's something happening in your life, it will be reflected on social media in one way or another. And that's good news for law enforcement officers who are always looking for ways to gain richer insights in their investigations.
Gathering Public Data
When you post something on your Facebook profile, it's considered to be public information. This allows law enforcement officers to find and leverage certain insights as evidence in criminal cases.
Take Melvin Colon, for example. The suspected New York gang member was charged with murder and various weapons and narcotics-related crimes after he posted public photos on Facebook that showed him flashing gang signs. Coupled with incriminating private messages and a variety of other posts, the information was enough to do him in.
In Colon's case, one of his Facebook friends cooperated with law enforcement to provide access to the information they needed to make an arrest. (The circumstances of discovery were challenged by the defendant, but a federal judge ultimately ruled Colon lost all claims to privacy by sharing those details with friends.)
Data like this can also be used in cases of defense. Take the case of a 15-year-old boy named Jason as an example. This "wild child" fell into some bad behaviors at a very young age — including heavy drug and alcohol use — and was eventually found dead with a bottle of paint thinner in hand.
While Jason's parents were devastated, they eventually worked up the strength to file a claim against his life insurance policy. But just four weeks later, the claim was denied. The insurance company claimed he committed suicide.
The family was obviously distraught, so they hired a life insurance attorney to help them contest the ruling. Eventually, this attorney was able to uncover some telling messages on his social media accounts. These messages showed that, yes, he was planning to try "huffing" paint thinner, but that there was no intent to die. Instead, he was simply intending to try a new drug. As a result, the attorney was able to get Jason's family the claim they deserved.
These are just two examples, but they illustrate some of the ways in which social media can be used to provide facts that may otherwise have gone undetected.
While there are situations where the information is such low hanging fruit that law enforcement can grab it and run with it, there are other times when a backdoor approach needs to be taken.
Though more controversial, there are situations where law enforcement officers will apply classic undercover tactics to social media. They'll create cover accounts that are designed for targeted enforcements. They'll go in, befriend alleged criminals, and then attempt to gather incriminating evidence that can be used against them.
Police will even pose as young girls and attempt to catch predators soliciting minors to engage in sexual activities. Or they may pose as drug buyers and try to catch dealers.
Facebook and other social networking sites tend to frown on this behavior, though the outcomes are generally considered beneficial for all.
Filing Emergency Requests
In certain situations, law enforcement officers will actually go in and request emergency access to certain profiles in cases where there might be a life or death situation on the line.
And while Facebook and other networking sites are hesitant to grant this access, they will occasionally do so when there's justification.
The Battle Between Privacy and Justice
While access like this is certainly seen as a positive for law enforcement, there are many in the general public who feel it's an infringement on their personal rights. (And there's certainly a case to be made in support of this sentiment.)
The challenge lies in deciphering who owns what information. Is the information a person posts on a private page or shares in a private message between another user legally theirs? Or does it belong to the social networking company? Furthermore, is it free game for any user of the platform to nab the information and use it in any way they please?
These are questions currently being dealt with in state and federal courts. But for now, law enforcement officers tend to have the benefit of the doubt. And when used correctly, information gleaned from platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram can help bring justice in cases of wrongdoing.
Larry Alton is a professional blogger, writer, and researcher. A graduate of Iowa State University, he's now a full-time freelance writer and business consultant. Currently, Larry writes for Entrepreneur.com, Inc.com, and Forbes.com, among others. In addition to journalism, technical writing and in-depth research, he's also active in his community and spends weekends volunteering with a local non-profit literacy organization and rock climbing. Follow him on Twitter (@LarryAlton3), at LinkedIn.com/in/larryalton, and on his website, LarryAlton.com. Read Larry Alton's Reports — More Here.
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