Investigating the social Web

New training helps investigators find criminals and evidence on the Internet


     The news is full of stories about evidence found on Web sites such as MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, and others. From Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task forces gathering chat sessions and images, to street cops collecting videos related to assaults and robberies, law enforcement seems to have begun to catch on social networking.

     Yet some officers remain offline — whether due to generational differences, or no-Internet-usage policies in police departments themselves. A new course from the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics (also called SEARCH), however, may help convince them that social networking sites, as an investigative tool, aren't just a waste of time.

Social Web sites are different

     Social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, and the hundreds of others like them, are not like traditional Web sites. "[They] are designed for interactive communication, whereas 'regular' Web sites seem to be designed more for the dissemination of information," says Keith Daniels, a high-tech crimes training specialist with SEARCH.

     This difference can make investigations difficult. Lauren Wagner, the high-tech crimes training specialist who is Daniels' co-presenter, says that this is because social networking Web sites are designed so users can change their own content whenever they want.

     "Also," she says, "there is very little probability that these changes are recorded anywhere, so all available information can disappear quickly with little chance for recovery." Daniels adds that users can quickly migrate from one site to another, "whether owing to popularity or police presence." Thus, he says, investigators must record "as much information as possible — as quickly as possible."

     Online investigations are no longer tied to finding child predators. In fact, says Wagner, "All types of crimes and evidence of crimes can exist on social networking Web sites. Phishing, viruses and spyware are all rampant. Drug dealers post pictures of what they are selling (for example a picture of marijuana on a scale to show the amount, and money laid out beside it to show how much that amount costs). Hate groups and terrorist groups recruit over social Web sites. Background information as well as links between suspects, victims and witnesses can be obtained. Pictures of graffiti and stolen property can be found."

     Sites like MySpace and YouTube aren't the only places where evidence is available. "Microblogging" sites like Twitter can also offer it. "The case that comes to mind is the incident in Tokyo, Japan, where a man drove his truck into a crowd of people, then got out and started stabbing people," Wagner says. "He had documented everything he was going to do on a Japanese microblogging Web site before he started his killing spree."

     In addition, while traditional sites offer e-mail and postal addresses, telephone numbers, and other more conventional means of contact, social sites allow for direct lines of communication. These include private messaging, group memberships, and forums devoted to specific subject areas or users. "All areas of social sites have the potential to be used for all kinds of crimes," says Wagner. "If the information is publicly available, then law enforcement can search for, find and document this information."

A new course offering

     SEARCH's new training began last fall, when it offered three one-day "pilot" courses. They were so popular that the course, "Social Networking Sites: Investigative Tools and Techniques," became part of the organization's regular schedule.

     A non-technical offering, the course was designed for all investigators — not just those experienced in high-tech crimes, but also those who investigate gang activity, narcotics and property crimes. Attendees learn how to set up a MySpace page, work around page "enhancements," locate and trace users via their profiles, search the site for case information, and use off-site tools such as Firefox add-ons and the SEARCH Investigative Toolbar (downloadable at searchinvestigative.ourtoolbar.com).

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