Social Media Investigations

It's easy to snicker at that mental image. We joke: what would a group of today's teens and twenty-somethings do if you put them together in a room without any games to play, phones to text on or movies to stream?

This attitude is, in a sense, a digital version of “local control.” But it renders the investigators even less relevant than lack of interoperability does. Virtual communities are, after all, composed of real people: real criminals and real victims.

As Lt. Hubbard and I wrote, recruitment and retention needs to pair digital natives with more traditionally focused police officers: to put together street cops and Internet cops, people and technology. To that end, you need officers who are comfortable with:

“Investigation-sourcing.” In his article, Goodman notes that police have drawn on crowd feedback for rioter identification (in London, England and Vancouver, British Columbia), and there are many examples of investigators using closed listservs to learn about crime trends and criminals in jurisdictions adjacent to or further outside of their own.

Making public statements and responding to feedback, both immediately and over the long term. As NextGov writer Joseph Marks wrote in August:

While social media can provide a greater volume of information during an emergency, it has also democratized information flows, panelists said, forcing local police and fire chiefs and state and federal officials to be more transparent about operations.

"Once you could control all the information going into and out of an emergency situation," Geringer said. "But one-way messaging won't work anymore. What you do and say will be blogged about in real time. The public wants to engage in a dialogue. If you don't build trust with them there's going to be anarchy and that's the greatest risk."

Digital evidence collection. Frequently, officers have no idea how to handle things like high tech stalking, sexting, cyber bullying or other offenses. They don't ask the right questions, don't know how to refer victims to other resources and worst of all, can't collect evidence in a legally defensible manner.

This is starting to change. Patrol officers in some departments are being trained to collect mobile device and social media data, in much the same way that they are trained to collect basic physical evidence from a crime scene. Making digital evidence everyone's responsibility not only relieves pressure on often overworked forensic examiners – it also makes the department more adaptable to technical and legal changes.

Understanding technology innovation. I'm frequently amazed (and envious) when I see someone figuring out a new use for new technology. I don't own a smartphone or tablet; my TV, stereo and computers are not all networked together; hearing about wireless-enabled cars and refrigerators makes me want to move out to a compound on an island far out to sea.

If your administrators and supervisors have the same frame of mind, all the more reason to hire officers who understand how these technologies work. That way, they'll be able to put it to work for the agency, anticipate how it might be abused, educate citizens, and lead policing forward.


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About The Author:

Christa M. Miller is a freelance writer based in Greenville, S.C. She specializes in law enforcement and digital forensics and can be reached at


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