Blue Line


October 1, 2012  By Martin Hurst

1838 words – MR

Law enforcement and social media:

A modern dilemma – Investigate or communicate?

by Martin Hurst

Social media is a powerful vehicle for relationships, networking and marketing but it’s also heavily exploited by those involved in illicit activity, corporate espionage and violent criminal acts.

Effectively investigating social media has more to do with behavior than technology, which is placed in a support capacity. Forensic investigation concerns itself not only with the subject matter but the tools used to acquire it.

Social media has been in active play since 1996, when was launched and exploded in 2004 when MySpace allowed teenagers to create accounts. Many of us are acutely aware of Facebook’s inception the same year, leading to numerous Canadian accounts by 2007. Facebook claimed to have one billion monthly active users as of October 2012.

What has become a recent phenomenon is the embracing of social media by law enforcement. Over the last few years we have witnessed agencies use it in exceptional ways, while others reaped the fruits of concurrent poor usage. There are two main camps.

• The communicators: Proactively use social media for two way communication with the general public.

• The investigators: Have developed open source information into intelligence in an effort to better investigate suspects, persons/groups of interest and chronic criminals.

{Putting first things first}

Social media is no longer a social hobby or pastime; it is now an integral part of lifestyle, business, employment and criminality. As a result of widespread usage, the companies that have created these networking sites have access to a variety of analytical information, including:

• Membership demographics: Tombstone information (name, birth date, gender, citizenship and residence).

• Membership psychographics: The number of members who own mobile devices, have broadband access,
watch streaming video, play video games or have multiple social media profiles.

• Membership purchasing habits: The brands members purchase, what they eat and drink, types of entertainment, etc.

This short list of information shows social media is not only an excellent form of human communication but also a reservoir of sensitive information. There is a need to deploy a level of proportionate adherence to privacy legislation when using or investigating such sites, however there are reasonable methods law enforcement can use to acquire pertinent information:

{Informational silos}

When instructing on this topic, I start of by noting that “Facebook does not have regular teleconferences with MySpace, Nexopia and Hi5. Additionally, these social media sites do not consult government open source databases.”

They also do not have discussions about members and do not warn society that if someone can tap into every site a person has an account with, they could likely develop a sensitive intelligence profile about them.

{Left behind data}

When Facebook gained popularity (or notoriety, depending upon your beliefs), many individuals stopped using their old accounts from other sites and hopped onto the Facebook bandwagon. However, in their haste to sign up, they failed to deactivate or delete the information populated on the old sites and it can still be accessed today due to the lack of privacy settings employed by social sites of that era.

{A communications tool}

Hundreds of police officers and support partners communicate using social media on behalf of their detachment or agency. Professionally, they use Facebook, Twitter, Quora and other sites to promote their service and respond to the general public about a wide variety of topics. As with anything, the more someone uses a tool, the more they personalize it.

While there are great examples of Canadian law enforcement officers using social media as a communication tool, there are also incredibly embarrassing examples. Agencies need to be painfully reminded of this fact: social media communication is a very public two-way street and in its truest form is an extension of the person or department using it. Take a certain well-known hamburger chain, for example.

<“McDonald’s learned the hard way that you can’t force a meme. It will always backfire.

Last week the official Micky-Dee’s Twitter account posted two tweets with the hashtag ‘#McDStories,’ presumably in hopes it would spawn a wave of similar tweets and help the company trend internationally.

“‘When u make something w/pride, people can taste it’ – McD potato supplier #McDStories,” they tweeted.

The hashtag trend was picked up by Twitter users, just not in the way Ronald and crew might have wanted them to. Before long reams of cynical Tweeters were using the tag to share their less than fond McD stories. It turns out they weren’t ‘lovin it.’

“My father used to bring us to McDonalds as a reward when we were kids. Now he’s horribly obese and has diabetes. Lesson learned #McDStories,” wrote @natebramble.

“One time I walked into McDonalds and I could smell Type 2 diabetes floating in the air and I threw up #McDStories,” wrote @SkipSullivan.

The original tweet has since been deleted but not before the trend went viral”.>

( 6pt type SOURCE (Open): )

I believe it is a tactically sound idea for law enforcement personnel to communicate with the public using social media. However, with every sound tactical idea, there needs to be an established strategy propelling it. Instead of using that nasty habit of “hopping on the police bandwagon” and entering the social media world because a neighboring agency is, each agency should prepare a business plan articulating what they want to achieve and their anticipated return on investment (ROI).

Realize that it will require staff hours to maintain the accounts. Does your agency have a budget line to hold account for them? If your social media communication goes sideways, do you have an appropriate public relations strategy in place to minimize public or departmental backlash? Does your account administrator have the necessary training, tact and professionalism required to maintain your endeavours?

On many levels, an open, dialoguing Twitter account is the microcosm of an agency. The administrator requires worldview knowledge of anything that could publicly have an impact on their service. It is a tremendous responsibility to be the public face of law enforcement. These and many other considerations must be a part of your communication strategy.

{An investigations tool}

This is an incredibly poignant topic. Where do you draw the line between accessing freely accessible Internet based information and that which requires some form of judicial authorization? There is an argument that both statements are one and the same under certain circumstances. I will not debate the pros and cons of this issue except to note that every officer who “trolls” the net looking to acquire information on an investigative target must ask these questions:

  1. Does my investigation fall in line with policies and procedures?

There likely is policy/procedure in place for investigations involving sexual interference, exploitation and abuse, as these are often interwoven with social media and online activity. The use of social media research in every type of criminal investigation is increasing exponentially. In my experience, officers between 20 and 35 are the main users of such tactics, as they were raised within a social media influenced generation. During my training courses across Canada, the US and Australia, I have observed that such officers passionately research their targets in this fashion. The challenge every time was that there was no policy or procedure affording them any protection from potential liability.

  1. Do I have an operational plan in place that sets parameters for my investigation?

What is your investigation? Why did you troll through social media? What do you hope to locate? These questions form the basis of your operational plan and likely will be asked by any supervisor that’s ensuring your investigative practices are falling in step with agency practice and legislation.

  1. Does my department know that I’m conducting an investigation using social media?

Law enforcement agencies are very busy places that concern themselves with a continuum of current events but remember that every investigation you conduct still falls under the umbrella and mandate of your agency. Supervisors and executives may be unfamiliar or unconcerned with social media but they will be keenly aware of reputation management. If your use of social media negatively impacts the reputation management plan, they will endeavour to find out about your tactics at lightning speed. It is a prudent idea to inform them of your intentions first instead of waiting for them to ask!

  1. Am I using approved hardware/software or working from home?

Unlike secure and confidential access to a classified intelligence database, social media can be accessed from any Internet enabled computer/tablet on the planet. Many of us, while working within the confines of an agency, often have a challenging time completing certain tasks. Our colleagues enjoy socializing with us, we usually have to multitask/juggle numerous assignments and investigations and sometimes the technology at work is antiquated. Given these dynamics, it can be incredibly tempting to do your work after hours from home, using your personal home computer.

Here’s one reason why this is a bad idea:

  1. Defence and Crowns sift through hundreds of thousands of documents involving criminal matters and are encouraged to first deal with matters pertaining to the electronic capture of data.

  2. There are officers who have Facebook accounts used to research investigative targets. However, every time someone logs onto Facebook (for example), the Internet Protocol (IP) address is identified, identifying their location. Every Facebook account allows the user to view from where and with what IP address they have accessed their account.

  3. If I was a savvy lawyer and realized that a police officer had used Facebook to gather evidence on my client, I would request all records pertaining to the investigation for disclosure purposes. If they were not properly vetted by the agency, I may get access to the section of the account which itemizes the IP addresses of the locations where the investigator logged in. Would a investigator feel comfortable revealing their personal residential IP address? Sure, you need judicial authorization to compel an Internet service provider to reveal the owner’s identity but we all know there are illegal and unscrupulous methods of obtaining that data.

I admit I may have opened a hornets’ nest but I would rather have readers proactively debate these matters now, as opposed to having to react to them later. Please read the directions before using! Educate yourselves in the usage of social media as either a communication or investigation tool prior to using it. You may save your agency from a never ending world of grief, financial expenditure and a potential string of lawsuits.

Social media is an incredibly useful, multi-faceted tool for law enforcement but, like any other tool, we must be properly trained in its use. Practice and use it is a perishable skill and deploy it in a reasonable and lawful manner.


Vancouver Transit Police Service Cst. Martin Hurst is a forensic social media specialist contracted by an international private firm. He trains law enforcement officers primarily throughout North America and is a former probation officer and social worker.

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