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Social Media Investigations

In last month's column, I referred to a book chapter I had the pleasure of coauthoring (together with Lt. David Hubbard, administrative lieutenant with the Eustis, Fla. Police Department). In it, we discussed the challenges and rewards of recruiting, training and retaining “digital natives”: younger police officers who have never known life without technology.

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? Would they find a way to converse face to face... or stare blankly at one another, at a loss for words?

Whatever you've read about Gen Y, the “millennial generation” and “digital natives” – they're narcissistic, they're collaborative, they're entitled, they're empathetic, they're unmotivated, they want to change the world (funny, I remember reading the same things about their parents, the baby boomers) – let one thing stand out:

Technology has driven deep changes in the way criminals organize and communicate.

Consider what Marc Goodman, founder of the Future Crimes Institute, recently wrote for O'Reilly Radar:

For example, all organized crime groups have historically looked upon outsiders with great suspicion: don't trust somebody you don't know and who has not been vetted. Elaborate processes were established, such as the Mafia's Omertà, to ensure newcomers to the criminal enterprise were neither rats nor cops.... As the world turned to globalization, so too did organized crime. Their initial attempts were limited, but generally effective. Drug cartels in Latin America began to work with organized crime groups in Eastern Europe. The Japanese Yakuza and Chinese Triads developed ties and turned to one another for very specific tasks, such as carrying out a particular "hit" or laundering a large sum of money in a different jurisdiction. Though these disparate crime groups were located in different parts of the world, they found ways to build trust and work together in their joint illicit pursuits. 

Although American law enforcement has made great strides in sharing information, in many cases,  knowledge remains power, and to share information means giving up some of that power. Ten years after 9/11, for example, many law enforcement, fire and other emergency response agencies are not fully (or in some cases even partly) interoperable. At issue: “local control.”

Local control is a geographical concept based on how well a responder knows the culture, people and issues in his or her community. The assumption: different responders in another community, even if it is adjacent, cannot know the people and issues in as much depth, regardless of shared information about them.

Digital natives make no such assumptions. That's because information is their world. They've never known a time when information wasn't freely shared on the Internet, and they've grown up using digital media to share their information with friends, family and the rest of the world – which helps them form their own communities, real as much as virtual, around their own interests.

This is true of criminal digital natives as well as those who abide by the law. As Goodman points out, criminals use technology to cross geographical boundaries with the same goal as everyone else: to make their activities easier. It would be nice if police could do the same, but because there are ethical and legal considerations to their using the tools, they need policy and SOP to guide their path.

That's if they're allowed or decide to use the tools to begin with. A few weeks ago, a law enforcement officer I follow on Twitter tweeted: “Did a seminar on sexting today. Surprised by the # of LE, [attorneys] and educators that were happy they didn't participate in [social media]. I told them they can't help solve the problem if they choose not to educate themselves. Some of the folks didn't like my comment.”

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