As more investigators use social media, they need to be aware of the legal issues and tread carefully.
Law enforcement officers and private investigators are turning to social media to assist them with investigations . Facebook and other Web sites, for example, have helped with investigations ranging from missing person cases to drug crime investigations to monitoring for students who may need emotional assistance, says Paul Parlon, a detective at the University of Massachusetts Boston. But using such tools can have legal implications or create other issues that investigators must be attentive to, experts say.
When a student went missing last year, Parlon’s online research revealed that the student had a networking account that wasn’t in his real name. From postings on that site and other online information, the investigator then gleaned information showing that the student was fond of gambling. Eventually, Parlon played a major role in locating the student in Atlantic City.
In another case, by looking at posts on Facebook and other sites, Parlon was able to identify a student who seemed to be having emotional difficulties. With such information, Parlon was able to contact other university staff to conduct a “wellness check” on the student. He’s also using networking sites to investigate at least one drug-related incident.
Parlon says that one of the advantages of social media sites is the ability to rapidly identify possible contacts of people he is researching. This contrasts with “the old-fashioned way where you might identify two or three people in eight hours and have to [travel to] find them,” he says.
Some of the investigations involve a certain amount of subterfuge and social engineering. In some investigations, for instance, Parlon has created fake profiles on networking sites, he says. The investigations have involved creating a persona that the target and their contacts might “consider attractive.” Tactics can involve visiting targeted chat sites or subscribing to certain groups or publications. One goal might be to friend contacts of a person of interest.
It can take time to develop an online personality that is interesting enough for a person or that person’s contacts to begin online communication, he says. But such work can have “kind of a snowball effect; once people see that you’re okay in the realm of social media, the more people come to you, and the investigation starts to get bigger,” he explains.
Parlon is one of an increasing number of investigators using social networking sites to glean valuable information on subjects, says Johnny Lee, director of the nonprofit Peace at Work and a consultant and trainer on social networking investigations. There are also many free online tools and resources that can assist with investigations, he says.
Lee focuses mainly on active online monitoring, or looking at online activity of certain individuals or groups to detect signs of potential danger. He says that one useful tool is Google’s Alerts function, which lets users enter key words and set Alerts to monitor certain chat rooms or news sites for occurrences of those words. “It can be helpful if you can’t check sites yourself [too frequently],” says Lee.
Investigators must be careful of the legal limitations when using social media, however. Universities can create a policy on monitoring and have students and other relevant parties sign off on it, advises Lee. With regard to any other aspects of investigating online, such as using fake profiles, security professionals should consult legal advice to ensure that no laws are being broken.
When it comes to using any evidence gleaned online in a court of law, there are numerous challenges and unsettled issues, says Benjamin Wright, an attorney as well as an instructor on data security and investigations at the SANS Institute. There have been at least a few cases in which courts have said attorneys couldn’t use any information acquired online through deception, he says. Sometimes the evidence is rejected because it cannot be verified or the source is unclear—for example, there may be no way to prove that the information discovered online was not posted by a roommate or someone else with access.
For that reason, according to Wright and other experts, investigators will sometimes use social media and other online resources as a way to attempt to gain some initial information. Then later they can carry out a more formal or traditional investigation.