Social Media Investigation

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Social media are increasingly being used in legal and criminal investigations. Study shows that 80% of law enforcement uses social media for various investigations. Information posted on sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube has been used by law enforcement, private agencies, and university officials to prosecute users of said sites[1].


Review of Social Media

There is a wide variety of social media tools currently available on the Internet. These social media tools include the following:

  • Blogs: A short-form for web-log and is a discussion or informational sites. These websites facilitate the sharing of regular entries detailing information about individuals’ own lives, as well as commentaries on specific topics or events[2]. Entries made on blogs can contain photos, audio or video.
  • Microblogs: These services, such as Twitter, allow users to blog, but it differs in the way that its content is typically smaller in file size using short sentences or links to other places[2].
  • Web-forums: Web-forum or internet-forum is an online discussion sites where people can hold conversations in the form of posted messages. They differ from chat rooms in that messages are at least temporarily archived. Chat room occurs in real time whereas web-forum is a message system in which posts are left and can be read at a later time[3]. Web-forums categorize each discussion into a “thread”, a topic of discussion where users can leave a comment on others’ posts[2]. The forum is organized into a hierarchy of sub-forums, which usually contain a specific topic(s)[2].
  • Social bookmarking sites: Social bookmarking sites allow users to add, edit, and share bookmarks of web documents. Unlike media sharing sites or other sites, users can’t share files or other forms of media but bookmarks or links to other web pages[2]. Each bookmark can be categorized under a number of topics.
  • Social networking sites: An online site where users can build social network with their friends or others with similar interests. Users can create their profile with their personal information. Also they can post comment and photos and also paste links to other web pages or media files. The most popular social networking site is Facebook[2].
  • Media sharing sites: These sites allow users to upload photos, videos and audio to a website that can be accessed from anywhere in the world. After sharing media with others, users are invited to comment, respond and react. The most known media sharing sites is[2].
  • Wiki sites: Wiki sites can look like any other web page, but it differs in the way that these sites are created, edited and maintained users who volunteer their time. The most popular example of this type of site is Wikipedia[2].
  • Virtual world content sites: : In these sites, users can represent themselves as avatars to interact with other users in a computer-simulated virtual environment. A known example of this is Second Life.

Major Social Media Sites

Several popular social media tools that are popular among internet users are described below:

  • Facebook: Facebook is the most popular social media network around the globe today. It has a global audience of 600 million users and over 18 million users in Canada[4]. Unlike most of other social media sites that target specific demographic groups, Facebook is used by a wide range of demographic groups with almost equal proportion between female and male. Also, Facebook seems to appeal to a variety of age groups in Canada, with the largest population of users being between the ages of 18 and 34 (53%)[4].
  • Twitter: The Twitter service was launched in 2006 and has since become the most popular microblog website. Users can post comment in the form of text-based messages known as “tweets”, each containing up to 140 characters. Currently, Twitter has 190 million users generating 65 million tweets a day on Twitter[5]. Twitter can be used as a platform to share photos, audio, or video but only if it is from a third party media sharing websites such as YouTube.
  • Blogger: Blogger is a blog publishing service launched in 1999 which allows users to post time-stamped entries, such as text, photos or videos[2]. Users use it as a medium to express opinions and linkage to other materials on the Web. Blogger was created by Pyra Labs, and later, taken over by Google in 2003[2]. Approximately 31 million bloggers in the US[6]. Largest number of blogs was the US (29.22%), whereas 3.93% of blogs originated from Canada[6].
  • YouTube: The site launched in 2005 and became the most popular media sharing websites in the world. In addition to the functionalities to allow users to share audio and video files, registered users can create channels to which other users can subscribe in order to get notifications of newly uploaded videos. Some video is restricted to specific viewers with direct links to the video. Users can access the websites through multiple devices such as computers and smartphones[2]. YouTube is localized in 43 countries and across 60 languages and over 800 million unique users visit YouTube each month[7].
  • WordPress: WordPress, unlike many blog sharing websites, offers an open source content management system (CMS) to its user[2]. Users with basic coding knowledge can use the template provided by CMS to create new designs. WordPress allows users to tailor their own web sites or blogs.
  • MySpace: MySpace, owned by News Corporation, became the most popular social media site in North America in 2006, but its popularity has dramatically declined since Facebook was launched in 2008. The site is mainly targeted to youth and allows users to interact with brands, bands, and also meet other friends and other entertainment media. The redesign has resulted in the change in the demographics of MySpace. The site has reportedly given up competition with Facebook and now focused on service involving music and young people. Majority of users are from North America, most from the US. It is estimated that there are only 830,000 users accessing MySpace per month in Canada[2].

Uses of Social Media by Law Enforcement

Wanted Poster on Social Media

Instead of traditional wanted poster, displayed in the busy area of town, law enforcement agencies are now posting descriptions of criminals on social media websites. Platforms provided by social media tools such as Facebook are very useful to put the digital bounty posters. Law enforcement can get the information about the criminals in real-time at nearly any cost.

Tip 411 by cityofplanotexas


Anonymous E-Tipsters is a sophisticated way for police to collect data from community. With the application, tipsters can report anonymously through a variety of means including “anonymous web chat, text tips and secure social media publishing.”[1]. Alerts are filtered and sent out through a police department’s central station to other web mediums. In addition to the basic functionalities, E-Tipsters offers services that allows users to create interactive “crime heat map” to add more information accordingly[1]. This program is designed to improve interaction between the police and the community through real-time web tools.

Social Media Stakeout

Social media stakeout is the process of monitoring a location, people or a group of persons in the different interactive forum[1]. Such forums include Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and any other form of social media. The message that is exchanged on such mediums is also monitored. For example, once, the specific keywords are found in Twitter, the map will show where geo-located tweets are originated. During the London Olympic, British teenager was arrested after sending abusive tweets to an Olympian[2].

Police Blotter Blogs

A police blotter is the record of events at a police station. A desk sergeant kept a record of these events. Today, captains use Twitter feeds, blogs, YouTube, and Facebook to put out the digital police blotter in real-time. Social media is allowing many police officers on the scene to report the publicly available information of the crime for themselves. Reporters are gathering real-time information directly from blog posts on police department social media platform[1].

Methods to Collect Data from Social Media

Gathering public data

Police first try to gather information that is available in the public. If public data are not available, police may try looking at suspect’s posts on their friends' public pages. Drug dealers have been known to post innocuous public information that includes location information[1].

Facebook undercover profile

Going undercover by creating fake profiles to befriend suspects is a controversial approach. It si believed that about 9% of Facebook accounts are fakes frowns on this practice. While these fake accounts may be against social network's policy, they are not illegal. The LexisNexis survey found most law enforcement officials have no qualms about creating fake profiles for investigations, with 83% saying they thought it was ethical[1].

Using proper channels

Police officers do not have as much access to social media information as one thinks. When they need information on social media, they have to request a subpoena or a warrant depending on the kind of information. Each social media sites set their privacy policy for how it provides personal information to law enforcement[1].

In case of an emergency

In case of emergency, police can try getting immediate access to personal information on social media sites by filing a emergency request. Some social media sites such as Facebook and MySpace have 24-hour hotlines to deal with any emergency. Facebook’s hotline is armed with a team of lawyers who screen the emergency request[1].

Social Media Crimes


Facebook check-in via Foursquare

Social media tools such as Facebook event page and Foursquare check-in show the others that who is or will be away from home. It provides perpetrators a period of time to commit crimes by searching potential victims in the vicinity. Besides burglary, perpetrators may also commit vandalism or home invasion[3].

Nowadays, more businesses use social media tools to market and retain customers. Users check in to those businesses such as restaurants to benefit from coupons, gifts or hidden deals. Users should be careful about their privacy settings and share information such as check-in only to people who are trustworthy.

Facebook event page

Many social media tool users usually scribe to a list of unknown “friends”, it poses a potential danger if these people know where you live and when you will be out of home. Checking in and letting them know are similar to opening and welcoming thefts to rob your place.

Worse than check-in, Facebook event page allows perpetrators to prepare to commit crimes with plenty of time in advance. As aforementioned, a pay to protect yourself is to set the privacy setting to be more secure and not to disclose all the information to everyone.

Social Engineering & Phishing

Phishing email pretends to be sent from Microsoft Windows Live

Social Engineering refers to “gaining access to information by exploiting human psychology”[3]. Computer security firm Trend Micro labels Facebook as “a minefield of scams”. If log in information such as username and password are disclosed, scammers can use the account to spread scams such as asking friends for quick loan, etc.

Phishing means a play on fishing. It is an attempt to acquire account numbers and passwords, etc. through sending out emails. For example, phishers pretend to be software or service company and ask email receivers to provide personal information for a number of reasons, ranging from verification to upgrade. Although it is passive and has a low on hook rate of 0.5% - 1%, the ROI is still a motive for phishers to continue since investment is extremely low[4].

Sometimes it is hard to distinguish whether an email is genuine or not. Three guidelines may help you to identify if the email is a scam.

  • Asking for personal information
  • Showing unprofessional content and email address
  • Giving a sense of urgency


Malware, adware, and viruses can be distributed to your devices through several channels as follows:

  • Clicking on links
  • Opening attachments
  • Responding to messages

Because of the ease of spread, social media tool users should be careful before their actions. Malware can disclose your information to the Internet without notifications, adware may incur an unpredictable costs to your bills, while viruses may damage your device systems and lower your productivity. In order to protect yourself, you should always keep your anti-virus software on your devices up-to-date. For business entities, having firewall, secure severs and fully functional virus scanning and removal system, etc. should ensure protection. It is vital since most businesses are liable to the information leakage of their clients and the result is expensive.

According to the report of anti-virus developer Sophos in 2010, rogue software is found on 19 million personal computers in the world, 40% social media users came across malicious attacks, and over 70% organizations concern about security being endangered by social media[3].


Photo taken on Android smartphone with GPA tagging on
GPS setting on Android smartphone

International Computer Science Institute (ISCI) defines cybercasing as “how geo-tagged (with location information) media files including text, photos, and videos can be used by criminals”. It is a new term come along with the popularity of the use of geo-tagging function of electronic devices such as smartphones and tablets and social media sites such as Facebook and Foursquare. With cybercasing, privacy attacks become very easy.

Functions of Indoor Triangulation System for individuals and businesses

Cybercasing the Joint

Checking geo-data of photos using Panorado
Checking the actual location on Google Earth with geo-data
Search for location on Google Street View based on geo-data of a photo
Mock-up for users to set the level of geo-data embedded in photos

The article written by Friedland and Sommer reflects that cybercasing is attributed to the growing smartphone market and rapid spread of location-based services[5]. Even GPS is switched off on portable devices, geo data can still be captured through WiFi triangulation, which is to find in range WiFi networks (access point or cell tower) and measure the signal strength to approximate your location. It is possible indoors[6].

Navizon is a company, which develops the indoor triangulation system[7]. It provides application on Apple’s app store and Android’s app market for downloading. According to the whitepaper on its website, it shows the other side of the use of geo-data such as tracking and surveillance of visitors for businesses. The increase in security level for the businesses using the triangulation technology reflects the values in business environment.

Application such as Panorado allows users to easily check the geo-data of a photo, including latitude and longitude[7]. With online map such as Google Earth, location can be tracked very easily by just entering the geo-data to the search bar.

In the Cybercasing the Joint article, it is reported that geo-tagging is declining due to the privacy policy of several social media sites including Flickr. Geo-tagging dropped from about 9.3% in 2006 to 4.3% in 2010, indicating the effectiveness of such opt-in policies[5].

The accuracy of the location check using geo-data is so high that the variance is +/- 1m[5]. Users should remove all the geo-data of photos before uploading them to social media sites. Websites that handle a lot of pictures such as Craigslist should warn users the danger of posing photos with geo-data.

The author of the article created a mockup setting of accuracy of geo-data for users when they take photos. Accidental disclosure of geo-data can be greatly reduced if users are asked and reminded whenever they take the photos.

Identity Theft

Identity theft is a serious crime. For example, Justin Brown was arrested for impersonating Bree Condon, a model on the dating site in 2009[3]. Identity theft is a more severe crime than sending out scams since it adversely affect the impersonated in terms of wealth and reputation, etc.

In the Internet Crime Report published by Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) in 2010, identity theft receives the third highest complaint (9.8%) and it is the second most referred crime to law enforcement (16.6%)[3]. Customer fraud is a type of identity theft. According to Consumer Sentinel by Federal Trade Commission (FTC), 247,000 complaints about identity theft were received in 2010[3]. A survey conducted by Javelin Strategy and Research shows that 8.1 million Americans have been a victim of identity theft in their lives[3].


Cyberstalking refers to stalking online, it is easier than offline stalking with the aid of social media tools. People have higher access to the lives of others through social media sites. US Federal Study of offline stalking reveals that 8.2 million American women (8%) and 2 million of men (2%) have been stalked. It can be expected that online stalking is even worse[3].

Cyberstalking can be developed into a form of harassment online. Approximately 34% of the cases are occurred through emails. Facebook comes the second channel for online harassment with a percentage of 16.5[3].

Prevention and Protection

Social Media Reach

Predators are out there and people of all ages can be victims. Young ones are vulnerable and are tricked into posting incriminating photos and are targets of cyber bullying. Older people are preys to scams, clicking away at links that are not legitimate. Online crimes do not discriminate.

Government: Bill C-30

Governments and other agencies try to protect citizens as well by educating them about social media predators. In addition to this, earlier this year, the Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act (officially titled Bill C-30) was proposed as an amendment to the Criminal Code of Canada. It would have granted authorities the power to monitor and track digital activities of Canadians in real-time, as well as obtain individuals’ electronic information without needing a warrant. The bill is very controversial because if passed, the government can use this even with investigations unrelated to crimes.

With the Canadian Government currently discussing online surveillance of consumers on the Internet, many people have protested with agreeing and disagreeing perspectives. Even at its $80 million price tag, there are supporters out there for the implementation of this sort of surveillance[8]. Support of the Bill C-30 is due to the potential of tracking down criminals over the Internet, being able to keep track of sex-offenders, and overall protection of children who use the Internet. On the other side of the debate, there are many Canadians who are against the implementation of being watched at every move as they surf the web.

Social Media Crime - Online Safety by ContinuumWorldwide

Prevention tips

Completely safeguarding oneself online is difficult, but protection and prevention is attainable. The following lists some tips on how to protect yourself online[1]:

  • Know what you've posted about yourself - Information that is used by financial and security institutions to verify your identity should not be posted online. This can include postal codes, mother's maiden name, hometown, or birthdays. Hackers use this information to break into your account.
  • Use caution when you click links and don't trust that a message is really from who it says it's from - Nowadays, phishing occurs outside emails. They also target social media users, especially if links are posted by someone you know. Like spam mail, hackers are able to post material from someone else's account to entice that particular person's network of friends to click on the link.
  • Don’t allow social networking services to scan your email address book - When you allow networking sites to do this, you are also putting your associates at risk. Sometimes, you unknowingly give access to these sites to send messages to your associates using your email account.
  • Type the address of your social networking site directly - Clicking one link to the next, to the next, might lead you to a fake site that will steal your login information.
  • Be selective about who you accept as a friend on a social network - Identity thieves and criminal predators can create accounts that may look familiar to you. Verify the person you are giving access to your personal information.
  • Choose your social network carefully - Make sure you understand the privacy policies of the social networking site you are planning to sign up for as you will be providing your personal information to this site.
  • Assume that everything you put on a social networking site is permanent - Even if you delete your account, information you have posted may stay on the Internet.
  • Be careful about installing extras on your site - Third-party applications may steal your personal information. Be aware of what you're trading off when you download or use these applications.
  • Turn the geo-tagging feature off - Geo-tagging may be a great innovation, but it is also a dangerous one. Location details are easily captured and extracted from photos or posts by hackers and stalkers. Online crime may translate to real world crime if people are not too careful.


The advent of social media has indeed provided society with great changes. Changes that up until now, people are trying to learn how to adapt to. Social media has been used effectively to promote businesses. However, there are massive downsides to this as well, especially if businesses don’t learn to manage their online reputations well. This applies to individuals as well.

Employers investigate social media

Employer surveillance

When it comes to social media, it’s a matter of finding a balance between information that is and isn't made public. A career survey earlier this year revealed that 37% of employers investigate job candidates’ social media profiles[2]. 65% of employers are looking as to whether or not a candidate presents themselves professionally online. Other reasons include wanting to see if they will fit with the company’s culture, wanting to learn more about their qualifications, to learn if they are well rounded and only 12% look for reasons not to hire someone.[2]. A recent controversy surfaced that some employers have asked for applicants' social media passwords[3]. Labour laws in Canada offer strong protection from employers who ask job seekers for personal information such as social media passwords. However, rules in the United States are much more lax, and several cases in which prospective hiring managers have asked candidates to turn over their login information as part of the vetting process have arisen[4].


Self-Surveillance is used to describe how people conform their behavior and/or their speech about that behavior when they know they are being observed [5]. Facebook updates, tweets, and blog posts are structured so that they conform to the acceptable standards. Posts are visible for anyone to see, so people usually behave accordingly to regular social norms, online. The impact of self-surveillance on society is that people tend to try and keep their online personas as extremely normal. This can also impact how people actually live their daily lives, as they are aware that their actions can end up posted online. On the contrary, sometimes people also tend to over exaggerate how great (or miserable) their lives are, when they post online.

Lack of self-surveillance

Some people do not realize the adverse effects of their online activity. The following lists some examples of people who have lost their jobs because of inappropriate use of social media.

  • November, 2007 - A bank intern told his manager that he cannot come to work because of a family emergency. However, photos of the employee in a Halloween party popped up on Facebook [6].
  • December, 2009 - A disgruntled ambulance worker posted labels on Facebook about her boss after a discussion about a customer complaint[7].
  • February, 2010 - An EMS worker's three-minute video parodying his work environment was posted on Facebook. Supervisors deemed the video "derogatory" and that the employee "displayed poor judgement"[8].
  • March 2010 - An instructor was indefinitely suspended after university officials were informed of her Facebook status asking, "Does anyone know where I can find a very discrete hitman? Yes, it's been that kind of day." This happened a few days after the fatal shooting at the university[9].
  • February, 2011 - A Dallas cop posted a detailed account on Facebook about her fight with a hospital worker[10].

Parting Comments

Social Media reaches thousands, if not millions, of people all across the globe. Information travels and spreads within weeks, days, even minutes. Information on social media is being used by companies, individuals, investigators and even people with bad motives. As a user of social media, it is very important to be aware of this and to monitor one's own online activity. Don't be an easy target!


  1. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named crime
  2. 2.0 2.1 Social Media HR Survey
  3. Employers Demanding Facebook Passwords
  4. Potential Employer wants your Facebook Password: Just Say No
  5. Digital Panopticon
  6. Bank Intern Busted
  7. Disgruntled Ambulance Worker
  8. EMS Worker Fires Up Supervisors
  9. Professor Inquires about Hitman
  10. Dallas Cop Brags about Fighting Orderly
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