Finding criminals and gathering evidence through social media

For over 20 years, as long as people have been using the Internet, information about citizens gathered online has been used to track down criminals and gather evidence against them. Multiple governments formed an entire pool of legislation regulating law enforcement and security agencies’ access to personal user data. For instance, the Netherlands have appropriate provisions in the Constitution, including the Personal Data Protection Act, Telecommunications Act, the Act on Intelligence and Security Services, and more.
The rise of social media has made finding intel on people’s activities and locations easier than ever before: criminals simply volunteer information about themselves and their actions online. Analysis of that data, including automated data analysis, can provide investigators with valuable evidence and help connect people and organizations.

US Police Force experience shows that offenders, especially minors, share evidence of their misconducts online themselves. Moreover, before, during and after the crimes in question are being committed, they talk about them with friends, discuss them publicly, and even brag about them: publish selfies with stolen weapons, drugs, money, post videos of acts of vandalism, like stealing school fire extinguishers and showering a full restaurant with foam, and even DUIs.

Police also uses social media to find missing people, mainly, to establish their last known location. A digital footprint has become as crucial to investigations as more traditional evidence. It allows to detect connections between people, identify criminal groups with scores of members, and take cases to trial, establishing their actions.

Social media can also be a great means of interaction between the police and the public, allowing the rapid spread and collection of information, but that, of course, requires a certain level of trust established between the public and law enforcement.

Some criminals attempt to play cat-and-mouse and catch-me-if-you-can with police. That usually ends in apprehension of the perpetrators: the offenders often end up tried and sentenced in court. But unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

Shahin Gheiybe, a robber and murderer, was sentenced to 13 years in the Netherlands. But he escaped prison, went on the run, and began taunting the local police with regular Instagram posts, leaving out an exact geotag, only mentioning a city at most. However, analysis of the photos and videos posted on social media allowed to locate him with exact precision, placing him at a residential building. In the end, the only reason Gheiybe was able to evade capture was the lack of extradition agreements between the Netherlands and Iran, where he was hiding. But social media post text and image analysis technology proved itself in this case — it’s a viable tool to locate wanted criminals.

It’s important to remember that gathering intel that will help apprehend a perpetrator and gathering evidence that will be accepted in a court of law are two different tasks.

Legal practice shows that for a successful case, social media data, for instance, a Facebook profile, needs to be examined in full, not piece by piece. Not all attorneys, including prosecutors, defence lawyers and judges, are deeply familiar with online search possibilities, which often leads to wrongful convictions, even when a simple Facebook message analysis could have prevented a judicial error.

The digital world is very fickle: online posts can be easily edited and deleted.

This led to the development of several additional key principles of online data analysis:

  • When analyzing information gathered online, all metadata proving the content is authentic must be collected (IP addresses, timestamps, URLs, etc.)

  • Content must be gathered in a way that clearly shows how, where and when it was acquired

  • Collection methods must not alter the content: it must be presented in court in the same way it appears online
    Investigators and lawyers involved in the case must not interact with the defendant via social media, distorting the evidence: the court has to be certain that the presented content is the same as it was originally found and collected online

Gathering evidence online manually in a way that adheres to all the principles online is a difficult, troublesome, and, possibly, even an unfeasible task due to its complexity. However, specialized software, developed specifically with judicial needs in mind, is up to the task.