Social Media and Criminal Investigations: Public content and its role in solving crimes.

AuthorKlippenstein, Lee

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Publicly available social media influences criminal investigations, with costs and benefits to both society and police services.

Social media has introduced new ways of both committing and solving crimes into our increasingly digitized world. Services like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram create opportunities for criminal activity. They also allow police services to scour publicly generated user information--posts, pictures, videos and personal information. This article examines how publicly available social media content influences criminal investigations, and the associated costs and benefits to both society and police services.

Open Source Intelligence: The data social media leaves out in the open

According to Ryerson University's Social Media Lab project, as of July 2020, 94% of adult Canadians have at least one social media account. Within this large number of users, daily activity varies greatly. While some never, or hardly ever, use their accounts, others post constantly about every aspect of their lives. Either way, these accounts can offer anything from a tiny glimpse into a user's life to a candid picture of their daily activity.

For criminal investigations, the information these accounts generate is relevant to the practice of Open Source Intelligence (OSINT). OSINT is the collection of public records, including social media content, for investigative purposes. Police forces use this practice to gather and analyze vast amounts of publicly available information to uncover evidence for some purpose.

Police acquire OSINT material in two ways:

  1. manually through targeted online searches, or

  2. by using complex algorithms and surveillance programs that mine, classify and store information on an ongoing basis.

OSINT finds content that is publicly accessible. Most social media platforms' default security settings make users' posts "public". The billions of social media accounts online then create an enormous amount of material available for OSINT practices.

Even in the absence of a social media presence, individuals can be captured in photographs or posts made by friends, or even strangers, that ultimately end up online for all to see. Social media has therefore created an online space that theoretically excludes no one.

The Rise of Social Media in Criminal Investigations

Facebook was created in 2004 but was not mentioned in a Canadian court decision until 2008. At that point it had already reached 100 million...

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