Social Media and Your PrivacyIf you followed the story about the Bling Ring, a group of teenagers and young adults who stole from the likes of Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, you likely aren’t surprised to learn that law enforcement uses social media to solve crimes. In a 2016 social media survey that the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) conducted, 59% of law enforcement agencies (of those who responded to the survey) contacted a social media company to obtain information that could be used as evidence.

Based on information from the same survey, 70% used social media for the purposes of gathering intelligence for investigations, and 76% used social media to gather tips on crime. Given law enforcement’s active presence on social media, you may be wondering how police and other entities can draw on your social media data in criminal investigations. We did some investigating of our own, digging up past cases that could shine light on what goes on behind-the-scenes in criminal investigations involving social media and your privacy. Here’s the 411 for you on how law enforcement uses social media to solve crimes.

How law enforcement uses social media in criminal investigations

Law enforcement uses social media in many ways when it’s investigating a crime, including the following:

Browsing social media

It turns out that it isn’t uncommon for criminals to brag about their exploits on social media, and investigators are able to track some of them down because of this. One of the most notable cases of how bragging became an Achilles’ heel? A multi-million-dollar jewel heist that was brought down because of this exact tendency. Thanks to the criminals’ social media posts — some of which documented their stolen loot and what they bought with it — the crime spree, which lasted for 18 months and impacted two dozen jewelry stores over eight states, came to an end. One picture even showed the operation’s ringleader using a stack of money as a pillow.

Creating fake profiles and personas

It’s no secret that law enforcement has created fake personas on social media when carrying out past investigations. There have been cases where officers have created fake profiles, sent friend requests and tracked down suspects through social media. Creating fake profiles hasn’t been met without controversy though. One eyebrow-raising case involved U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Timothy Sinnigen setting up a Facebook page in Sondra Arquiett’s name – without her knowledge. Arquiett, who had been arrested for her alleged participation in a drug ring, was awaiting a trial at the time of the page’s creation. The Facebook page, which featured photos posted from Arquiett’s seized cell phone – including racy images of her and pictures of her son and niece, was used to communicate with suspected criminals. Arquiett ended up suing Sinnigen, and Facebook took down the page after BuzzFeed News reported on the story.

Information shared with law enforcement

In the past, there have also been cases when a person’s social media connections shared information about them with law enforcement, resulting in consequences. For example, according to a report by UPI, after shooting his friend, Maxwell Morton got on Snapchat and took a selfie of himself posing with his friend’s dead body. A person who received the photo took a screenshot of the image and showed it to his mother, who then contacted the police, leading to Morton’s arrest and conviction.

Keeping tabs through social media mining and databases

Claims about law enforcement using programs to mine social media (i.e., collecting and analyzing social media information, such as posts and comments) and store the information gathered have also surfaced. According to The Washington Post, Fresno’s Real Time Crime Center used a program called Media Sonar, which crawled social media to search for unlawful activities, keeping an eye on individual people, threats pertaining to schools and hashtags associated with gangs.

Some authorities have found themselves in hot water because of how they used this type of software, however. For example, after keeping tabs on Black Lives Matter hashtags through social media monitoring software, an investigator from the Oregon Department of Justice faced repercussions, including being placed on paid leave. In another case, Jelani Henry, a teen from Harlem, claims that he was mistakenly charged with a double shooting – and held for over two years in prison – in part because of his social media connections. The Atlantic wrote that he may have been “hauled in” because of how he “was labeled in a database” as being connected to a known criminal, along with other reasons.

While some companies, such as Facebook, have made it more difficult for people to obtain backend data to create tools used for surveillance, some claim that police departments may be continuing to mine social media, accessing data through third parties that haven’t marketed their creation of surveillance tools. That said, besides social media mining, there are alternative ways for law enforcement to obtain social media information. For example, Facebook states that it discloses account records “solely in accordance with our terms of service and applicable law” (e.g., a valid subpoena, search warrants issued under certain procedures and more).

Obtaining information from social media companies

As mentioned above, law officers have obtained information directly from social media companies for various cases. In one case, authorities identified a Twitter user who posted threats about attacking Manhattan’s Longacre Theater. According to CNN, Twitter first refused to disclose the user’s personal information, but then the famed social network company proceeded to provide the information after a subpoena was issued. Twitter’s law enforcement guidelines state that, “private information [about Twitter users] requires a subpoena or court order,” and that requests for “contents of communications,” such as tweets and direct messages, “require a valid search warrant or equivalent … ” Keep in mind, however, that different companies have different procedures and policies when it comes to law enforcement requests. The moral of the story? It may be a good idea to be in the know when it comes to social media companies’ guidelines and terms.

Laws in place that may or may not protect you

While the IACP found that 80% of surveyed agencies employ social media policies, it’s a little hazy as to what laws exist to protect people from the potential overreach and privacy invasion. Here are a couple of the ones that have surfaced in discussions about how law enforcement uses social media to solve crimes.

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

Does breaking a website’s terms violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), an act that makes it illegal for people to access a computer “without authorization or exceeding authorized access?” While there are cases showing that it depends, and critics of the act have pointed out that the word “authorization” isn’t clearly defined and is open to many interpretations, so far, the answer seems to be mostly no. For example, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the court ruled in 2012 that violating a website’s terms of use isn’t a crime under the CFAA. On the other hand, in United States v. Drew, a case that involved Lori Drew creating a fake Myspace page to taunt teenage Megan Meier, prosecutors accused Drew of violating the CFAA. They claimed that she violated Myspace’s terms by making a fake Myspace page, rendering her access “unauthorized.” Ultimately, the judge found that Drew’s breach of Myspace’s terms of use did not violate the CFAA. There are other cases in which an individual was charged because they breached a site’s terms. For example, according to a report by Newsweek, the CFAA was applied to Aaron Swartz’s case, where he was being charged with violating the terms of JSTOR, a digital library of academic journals and other types of sources. Swartz had accessed JSTOR from MIT’s network and downloaded millions of academic journals for free from the website, which usually charges a fee for access. After his hopes for a deal with federal prosecutors didn’t work out, Swartz ended up committing suicide.

The Fourth Amendment

To some, the social media jungle has revealed the Fourth Amendment’s growing limitations, and some claim that this Bill of Rights amendment, ratified back in 1791, isn’t enough to deal with the digital revolution and the world today. Back when the Founding Fathers came up with the Fourth Amendment, which says that people have the right “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,” computers didn’t exist and the Internet was an unthinkable idea. Additionally, in the 1960s and 1970s, the Supreme Court ruled that the government doesn’t need a search warrant to obtain your personal documents if you’ve shared them. According to reporting done by NPR, based on these rulings and the amendment’s content, the Fourth Amendment has weakened in the wake of computers.

Perhaps this news comes as no surprise to you. After all, if you’ve searched the Internet, you’ve shared your searches with the web company. When you use a Fitbit, information about your movements is shared with Fitbit. And we’re all painfully aware of how much data is gleaned from our Facebook and other social media profiles. In light of all this, the possibility of law enforcement obtaining your data from corporations that store your information, either on their servers or computers or both, becomes a real one, and police are often able to obtain the needed search warrant or subpoena to get your information.

What lessons can be learned from all this?

While we certainly hope that you have never been involved in a crime and you never will be, it’s good to keep in mind that others may be able to access and share your information – even if your name never comes up in criminal investigations. For these reasons, be careful about what you share and post on social media and avoid putting yourself and your family (especially your children) at risk by oversharing.

It’s also good to keep in mind that it can be difficult for intentions to be parsed over the Internet, something that 19-year-old Justin Carter found out after making a “sarcastic” Facebook comment that was interpreted as a legitimate threat. The remark led to a woman reporting his comment to authorities, a search warrant and, eventually, jail time for Carter. It’s wise to avoid sharing photos or posting comments online that could be misconstrued or damaging to your reputation or livelihood.

Lastly, while adjusting social media profile privacy settings to your liking can get tricky and cost precious time you’d rather devote elsewhere, it may be beneficial for you to put in that effort to practice healthy social media privacy habits.

While there are a number of controversies and questions surrounding how law enforcement uses social media to solve crimes, it’s also good to remember the many questions that have been brought up about social media and your privacy as they relate to technology as a whole. To stay in the know about technology and privacy, make sure to keep track of our technology blog.