The long arm of the tweet

New survey says 80% of law enforcement personnel use social media to conduct investigations

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And even then there are ways to improve the searches. A person's age will often make a big difference on where to start. For instance kids, Navarro emphasized, are migrating away from Facebook to platforms like Twitter and Instagram. Older suspects are still hanging out on Facebook and even MySpace. Law enforcement searches on the right platforms can reap many nuggets of information.

Navarro echoed Altschuler's comments on the sheer amount of information that's out there, if you know where to look.

"Social media is a valuable tool because you are able to see the activities of a target in his comfortable stage," one respondent to the LexisNexis survey described. "Targets brag and post illicit valuable information in reference to travel, hobbies, places visited, functions, appointments, circle of friends, family members, relationships, actions, etc."

This is not exactly a new phenomenon. When he was a prosecutor, Altschuler said he could not count the number of times he would be listening to a wiretap tape and a suspect would say something like "we'd better not talk about this, there could be a wiretap"… and then promptly continue to discuss the criminal activity on the same call.

Excessive use of data?

Altschuler is concerned, though, that the excessive use of so much data, whether from social media or other electronic sources, may lead to overuse.

markey350.jpgSource: Congressman Ed Markey, official web site of the United States House of Representatives
Letter to AT&T regarding cell phone tracking

Altschuler cited recent reports from cellphone carriers indicating they responded to 1.3 million demands for subscriber information last year from law enforcement agencies. The reports from the carriers, prepared for Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), indicated that police and other agencies were looking for text messages, caller locations, and other information for investigations.

"On a wholesale basis, no one quarrels with the idea that criminals need to be prosecuted," Altschuler said. "On a retail basis, however, we have to question the success rates" from gathering so much information. Altschuler rhetorically doubted 1.3 million search requests really generated an equivalent number of arrests or convictions.

The defense attorney is concerned about overuse for two big reasons.

First, too much dependency will be placed on social media information gathering. "It's a huge waste of time when law enforcement runs down dead ends," Altschuler said.

Second, on a broader level, the overuse of social media data "dramatically alters the historical balance between government and citizen," he cautioned. "The government can obtain data few people would be comfortable with them possessing."

In the pursuit of justice, it's a shift in balance that law enforcement agencies are clearly taking advantage. Citizens and law enforcement agencies will soon have to come to terms with just how far this can go.

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