Nedlin: Social media: friend or foe?
In last month’s column, I addressed how the use of technology is being used to keep law enforcement on its toes and keep it honest. This month I want to discuss social media in relation to police investigations and criminal activity.
More than 500 million people use Facebook, and it has become the cultivating ground for sources of criminal evidence. When Facebook first launched, it was unknown just how this means of social information could be used for law enforcement purposes.
The use of Facebook began on college campuses and that primary base of users. Students would post photos of underage-drinking parties or comments regarding faculty personnel that were violations of school conduct codes. When school officials became aware of these posts, it was easy for the administration to track down students, which led to disciplinary action including expulsion. From there, law enforcement got wind of the unlocked potential of this database, and its use in crime investigation took off.
Just think of the information law enforcement has at its fingertips. From personal experience, I know that many investigations and prosecutions here in Aspen have been aided by the use of information found on Facebook. When there is a crime and leads are sought, law enforcement may not always have evidence to work from. The first place it often goes is to Facebook to see if a victim or suspect has a page listed. If so, the information that can be found is invaluable. From photos of where they have been to timetables of their movement and people they have been in contact with, crucial information that would normally have taken days or weeks to gain can be gathered in mere minutes.
In protection-order-violation cases in which one party is restrained from having contact with the other, Facebook can be the smoking gun. I have had many experiences when a restrained party will go on the protected individual’s Facebook page and post a comment. That’s deemed a violation of a protection order because it is “making contact” with the other person. Police print out that page, get themselves a warrant and call it a day. For some unknown reason, people think that when they are posting comments or photos on Facebook, they are living in a bubble encapsulated from the outside world. However, it is more like a fishbowl to where the world can look in and become the ultimate voyeur.
Needless to say, police officers in their private lives tend to use Facebook, which can lead to some pretty embarrassing situations. I recall a motions hearing once where the defense attorney presented some photos of the officer’s Facebook page depicting some rather embarrassing and improper photos. Needless to say, this went toward the officer’s credibility, and although the photos were not admitted into evidence, the judge was able to look at them. Unfortunately some things cannot be undone once that bell has rung. In this case, I don’t think the judge will look at that officer the same way again.
Social media also are being used by criminals in order to interact with one another and to pass along information, albeit in an encrypted fashion. From gangs to drug dealers to pedophiles, the Internet is the deviant’s playground. Recently i read that drug cartels are using Facebook in their target-selection process for kidnapping and sex trafficking. It is basically a catalog of potential victims. They are easily able to determine an individual’s value, visibility and ultimately vulnerability. Food for thought is that a social-media-awareness class should be taught starting in elementary school, when children are usually first exposed to social-media. Children should understand that all social media postings are an eternal memorialization of their lives, which can have serious consequences if not used in a responsible and appropriate manner.
Just think of what will happen in the future with the introduction of Google Glass. Currently, an app is being worked on that will use facial recognition. The goal is that just by looking at an individual, information will immediately be made available as to whether that person has a criminal history or if they may have any warrants out on them. The world is becoming a smaller place with the use of technology and social media. Privacy and anonymity are commodities that are becoming scarcer and more difficult to come by. The 1980s aren’t looking too bad after all.
Richard Nedlin is a former prosecutor in Aspen and now practices criminal defense. He can be contacted at 970-309-8197 and email@example.com.
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