Police and Fake Social Media Accounts
It’s all over the news today. The evidence is beginning to indicate that a certain unfriendly foreign entity created fraudulent Facebook accounts for the specific purpose of impacting our most recent presidential election. Although these pages did sport images of real people, the associated names and identities were fake.
Why did they do this? For just one reason: to gather “friends” and build relationships with users they hoped would soon become putty in their hands. Having gained the trust of these contacts, they then used it to their own advantage.
This underhanded use of social media is more widespread than some would care to believe. Members of law enforcement in our own country have also begun to utilize fake acounts. However, their intention has nothing to do with swinging an election. Instead, they hope to use their Facebook and similar accounts as information-gathering and monitoring devices. It’s their new, high-tech method for keeping tabs on anyone of whom they become suspicious.
Hopefully, that person will never be you.
The Use of Social Media in Crime Prevention
Ignoring Facebook’s official ban on the practice, law enforcement has increasingly begun to take advantage of social media’s surging popularity for assistance in fighting lawlessness. They use what they can glean from other accounts either to solve crimes that have already occurred or to hopefully prevent those that threaten to take place in the days and weeks ahead.
They begin by opening dummy accounts belonging to fake users. In profiles, they often pitch themselves as residents of the neighborhoods they wish to monitor and may even claim known suspects either as personal friends or as individuals they admire and hope to emulate. These fake accounts will permit them to mine public tweets and messages, and in so doing, they will pick up on common terms and colloquialisms in popular use by the community that lies in their investigative sights.
Once they’ve nailed down the vernacular, they will employ special algorithms set up by their local law enforcement precincts to search on the speech patterns that they have uncovered. In this way, they hope to identify potential lawbreakers based on their choice of words and expressions, relying on the questionable assumption that any individual who receives a tweet or post from someone known to have an involvement in criminal behavior would be equally likely to be involved as well.
These prejudicial suppositions will often lead to the development of surveillance programs that frequently have no legitimate reason to exist. In addition to being uncalled for, such stakeouts may also constitute an infringement of a suspect’s legal rights.
Why Law Enforcement Uses Social Media
When members of law enforcement turn to Facebook, Twitter and other social media applications, they normally have a specific reason for doing so. This can vary according to the circumstances of their investigation. Some of these may include an attempt to:
- Pinpoint a suspect’s precise location or hideout.
- Identify a criminal network and establish its membership.
- Learn of prospective future illegal activity.
- Collect probable cause for obtaining a search warrant.
- Secure evidence for use in a criminal court case.
Of course, when you’re posting to your Facebook page or other social media, the prying eyes of law enforcement are likely to be the last things on your mind. Since you feel that you are speaking to friends, you will normally post freely with no attempt to edit your words. The same applies to the pictures you post with the intention of pleasing or impressing your social contacts. Thoughts of self-incrimination will most likely never cross your mind.
This is exactly what law enforcement is hoping for. In many cases, their tireless efforts at social media investigation have paid off handsomely, enabling them to track down and capture:
- The thief who could not resist posting selfies of his stolen stash and subsequent getaway.
- The woman who tried to raise a few dollars by selling her children online.
- The hit-and-run driver who posted pictures of his victim lying in the street.
- The gang that used Facebook to communicate its plans for an upcoming robbery.
The more naive and unsuspecting the criminal, the easier it is for the police to capture him after the fact or put a stop to any untoward behavior before it happens. Fortunately, there are ways in which to keep yourself safe while using social media.
Protecting Your Online Privacy
When posting to Facebook or tweeting to the world, there are things you can do to cover the bases. For one thing, it is vital to realize that the things you put out on the internet can last for an immeasurable length of time, and this concerns more than just your messages and comments. The warning extends to instances in which you choose to “like” or share a post. Although these actions may seem to mean little to you at the time, law enforcement is likely to take a much more serious view of them. That is particularly true if you are facing criminal prosecution or are currently under investigation by law enforcement.
Regardless of whether you are or are not involved in a criminal case, it is always important to:
- Watch what you tweet. Nobody really cares that you’re going out for pizza, nor is where you plan to eat it any of their business.
- Be careful of posting live on Facebook. By their very nature, these videos telegraph your location, and that can harm your safety in numerous ways.
- Remember that posts designed to inspire your pals could also impress law enforcement in ways that you never intended.
- Resist the temptation to list your friends and relatives by name.
- Never post the address of your residence, your workplace or your favorite watering hole.
- Consider the effect that shared posts and retweeted tweets might have on prying eyes.
- Be sure that any personal pictures you choose to upload contain nothing that would give away your location.
- Discriminate carefully when “friending” others. You’re known by the company you keep.
- Resist the temptation to take and post selfies in front of a crime scene. These could give the impression that you were somehow involved.
Above all, it’s vital to be aware that once your information has landed online, it is going to stay there for quite some time. Remember this every time you post.
Social Media and Your Criminal Case
If you are currently under criminal investigation, every piece of the above information will apply to you in spades. In fact, under the circumstances, the safest thing to do would be to close out all your accounts, delete what posts and photos you can and give yourself a break from the online world.
At Gregory & Waldo, we are all too familiar with the ways in which careless behavior on social media can harm a criminal case. If you are afraid that your posts and tweets may have damaged your chances for a favorable outcome, please call Gregory & Waldo for advice. We have helped many people overcome the adverse effects of indiscriminate social media use, and we can do the same for you.