Digital Underground: Cyber Thugs, Police, and Virtual Investigations (1 of 8)

Many of us are familiar with the hit television show The First 48. The First 48 takes viewers behind the scenes of real-life investigations as it follows homicide detectives in the critical first 48 hours of murder investigations. If you have ever watched the show, then you know a typical investigation begins with a 911-call, and often ends with an arrest.

One of the most important aspects of solving a crime is gathering evidence. The detectives gather evidence is various ways. They search for evidence at the crime scene, and may question witnesses, use DNA analysis or watch video footage to determine the identity of the suspect. Once they determine the suspect’s identity, they face the challenge of locating the suspect. The detectives spend hours driving around town looking for the suspect; they may go to the suspect’s old addresses or known hangouts.  Sometimes they resort to just driving around neighborhoods hoping to spot the suspect. Sometimes they get lucky, but sometimes they don’t.

Police departments investigate crimes in many different ways. They have numerous modern high-technology tools including license plate readers, digital voice recorders, mobile data terminals, electronic control weapons with high-quality digital cameras, and rapid identification devices.[1] Although these tools have been successful, many departments have been caught off guard by criminals’ growing use of social media[2]…until now.

Today we live in a time of rampant over-sharing, where perpetrators often leave an online bread trail so extensive it makes Hansel look like he had gluten intolerance.[3] Social media sites make finding a suspect as easy as logging on to Facebook and reading the newsfeed. Police departments all over the world are using the Internet to their advantage, and social networks are proving to be the perfect crime-solving partners.[4]

Believe it or not, police are now using social media as a way to gather evidence and solve crimes, from examining photos to getting the word out about missing children.[5] A survey conducted by LexisNexis Risk Solutions found that of the 1,221 officers surveyed, 80 percent have used social media to solve crimes.[6] Most of these officials say that Facebook is the best source of information. Social media monitoring tools such as Twitterfall, Netbase, Trackur, CrowdControlHQ, or Socialpointer can capture data and monitor social media sites.[7] These tools are useful to law enforcement and might save investigators and analysts thousands of hours of work.[8] However, investigating crimes in this manner raises many questions.

The next seven blog postings will discuss how police use social media networks to investigate crimes. As well as explore the privacy concerns with collecting evidence in this manner and evidentiary issues surrounding the information found on these sites.


[1] Vernon M. Keenan et al., “Developing Policy on Using Social Media for Intelligence and Investigations,” The Police Chief 80 (June 2013): 28–30. http://www.policechiefmagazine.org/magazine/index.cfm?fuseaction=display&article_id=2951&issue_id=62013

[2] Kate KnibbsIn the Online Hunt for Criminals, Social Media is the Ultimate Snitch Digital Trends (July 13, 2013) http://www.digitaltrends.com/social-media/the-new-inside-source-for-police-forces-social-networks/#ixzz2gynfH7Xy

[3] Kate KnibbsIn the Online Hunt for Criminals, Social Media is the Ultimate Snitch Digital Trends (July 13, 2013) http://www.digitaltrends.com/social-media/the-new-inside-source-for-police-forces-social-networks/#ixzz2gynfH7Xy

[4] Kate KnibbsIn the Online Hunt for Criminals, Social Media is the Ultimate Snitch Digital Trends (July 13, 2013) http://www.digitaltrends.com/social-media/the-new-inside-source-for-police-forces-social-networks/#ixzz2gynfH7Xy

[7] Vernon M. Keenan et al., “Developing Policy on Using Social Media for Intelligence and Investigations,” The Police Chief 80 (June 2013): 28–30. http://www.policechiefmagazine.org/magazine/index.cfm?fuseaction=display&article_id=2951&issue_id=62013

[8] Vernon M. Keenan et al., “Developing Policy on Using Social Media for Intelligence and Investigations,” The Police Chief 80 (June 2013): 28–30. http://www.policechiefmagazine.org/magazine/index.cfm?fuseaction=display&article_id=2951&issue_id=62013


One Response to “Digital Underground: Cyber Thugs, Police, and Virtual Investigations (1 of 8)”

  1. Very timely topic. I am looking forward to the development of the series. One would think that the idea that the police can track people from what they themselves post would be enough to make them stop posting… but no…not really.

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