Mobile device technology is undeniably important to the kind of social network analysis that can help you connect the dots from victim to suspect, chart a node or more of a criminal organization, or identify multiple victims and suspects you didn’t previously know about. These leads can make all the difference to a variety of investigations.
However, as more data moves from physical mobile device to cloud—via third-party apps and backup data—and more investigators spend more time analyzing links from various social media, email, file-sharing, and other accounts, due diligence becomes increasingly important.
The risk: forming inaccurate assumptions or theories about what the data mean for the case you’re trying to build. Just as police wish the media and the public would get the whole story before offering commentary on a video or a photo—witness the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Police Department’s response to a viral photo of one of its cruisers parked in a handicapped space—investigators also need to think of social media information as only a starting point.
For example, a mobile device’s user may appear to have a number of Facebook accounts, but investigation shows that credentials for two are old and inactive, while someone else used the device to login to their own account. These may or may not be relevant, and certainly cast a different light in relation to the case.
An April article from The Atlantic highlighted the problem this way: “Social media can produce evidence in some cases, but it also fails to capture the complexity of human relationships—and can sometimes distort them. For this reason, it is important to take care that social media data is not misused or misinterpreted in the pursuit of justice.”
Author Meredith Broussard went on to observe that making assumptions, including connecting a username to a real person or believing that clicking a “like” button is always positive, are not enough for real-world policing. “There’s no field for someone… to indicate ‘I clicked the like button on this post so I wouldn’t get harassed on my way to school,’” she wrote.
What other surface issues should you watch out for? Microsoft researcher danah boyd wrote in 2012 that teens regularly share device and social media passwords just as they do school locker combinations—as a show of trust that can sometimes backfire on them, when friends “punk” them or use the access to control their dating partners. Thus, posts made from one account might or might not have been made by the account owner.
A 2012 Consumer Reports study noted that 25 percent of survey respondents admitted to deliberately falsifying information on Facebook to protect their identities. Moreover, “Facebook envy” is a phenomenon known to mental health professionals, and there’s no reason to think it doesn’t apply to criminal elements as well. University of Michigan assistant professor Desmond Patton observed in 2013, “Many gang members, usually those who are new, are interested in making a name for themselves which leads to bragging about acts of violence or crimes that they may not have committed.”
Fortunately, due diligence works the other way. Greater access to data means more ways to authenticate it. Tower and geolocation data from wireless carriers and mobile devices themselves, as well as surveillance video when it’s available, can validate whether a subject was where a social media post or eyewitness’ statement said they were. Social media network analysis might indicate strong relationships between one set of people, but adding data from their mobile devices—including phone calls, text and instant messages, email, and so on—tells an enhanced or even altogether different story.
Likewise, the content of those emails, texts, and instant messages can provide important context, reflecting a private side to a subject’s life that isn’t obvious from their public postings. Bear in mind, however, that search and interpretation of the collective “mosaic” of public and private data, including metadata, is an unsettled legal question. Be sure to obtain detailed written consent or search warrants for all these types of data, and document the decisions you make and why you make them.
Good investigators not only form theories about what happened; they also test them against all the information they can find. With greater scrutiny on American law enforcement agencies’ policies and practices in the past few years, ensure that your investigations both online and in real life can stand up to the toughest questions.