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88% of Law Enforcement Agencies Use Social-Media

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Social media role in police cases growing

By Roger Yu | Article Courtesy of: USA TODAY

Police investigators in Cincinnati stumbled upon an online video last year showing an act of armed robbery, helpfully taped by the perpetrators themselves.

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T.J. Lane, right, looks at his attorney during his in Juvenile Court proceedings in Chardon, Ohio. Photo via: Tony Dejak, AP

The analysts at the city’s Real Time Crime Center found the footage on a Facebook page while using the popular social-media site to investigate another crime.

The suspects were eventually arrested.
“We were looking at friends and friends of friends of the suspects (in the other case), and we just happened to run across it,” says Lt. Lisa Thomas, who heads the center that was founded two years ago to monitor the Internet and the cameras installed across the city. “You have guys who are bragging about their crimes online.”With more netizens flaunting their actions and thoughts in the open, social media has become a mainstay in police work. Police departments and federal agencies are aggressively seeking information from social-media companies, beefing up their budgets and providing training to dig for online clues left by criminals and victims in targeted investigations.
They can and do routinely order social-media companies to shut down a Twitter or Facebook page, for example, immediately after a crime has been committed or have relevant information archived before any changes can be made. “It’s no different than physical evidence,” says Bob Hopper, manager of the Computer Crimes section at the National White Collar Crime Center.
But the issue of properly handling social-media content is also igniting heated debates about privacy and the limits of the current law that spells out how police can legally retrieve personal data.
Adding to the confusion is the reality that rules and logistics for obtaining private information are still not firmly established for many police departments. Fewer than half of all law enforcement agencies, 48.6%, have a social-media policy, according to a survey by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “You’d hope that even big police departments would have people on staff to know the law,” says Mark Rumold, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.  “But the law is arcane and confusing.  And there is a significant debate on what governs what. There’s a learning curve they have to go through.”

About 88% of law enforcement agencies have used social-media sites — Facebook is the most frequently used, while Twitter is gaining — in monitoring and investigative work, the IACP survey says.

But at a time when police departments are cutting their budgets nationwide, coping with the new technological challenge is also proving to be a budgetary headache.

Thomas of the Cincinnati police department says her office’s staffing has grown to seven analysts in two years, but she would like to add more.  Her unit averaged 23 social-media investigation requests a month from various districts two years ago. They now receive more than 100 requests a month.

“Word is getting out that we’re beneficial for (obtaining) information, but also that you can prove things. That it helps to solidify their case,” she says.

Getting access

Social-media companies use standard legalese to spell out their policies for granting access to individuals’ online accounts.

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By Roger Yu | Article Courtesy of: USA TODAY

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