Social media as an investigatory tool

The issues surrounding the balance of personal privacy with Government intrusion have never been as relevant, nor the tide of public opinion so strong, as they are at the moment.

Protesters in New Zealand have been battling proposed legislation that would allow the State to spy more freely on its citizens while, in the relatively benign realm of social media, all across the world ordinary people are realising that sharing their lives so openly can lead to real peril – and in some cases, a jail sentence.

Employment lawyers have long been shaking their heads at the idiocy of employees who boast on Facebook about faking a sick day or hating their boss, and are then outraged when their behaviour is penalised or employment terminated. Sensible people are increasingly mindful about ensuring their private activity remains just that.

And it’s not just your employer who may be following your Twitter feed or perusing your Instagram photos. It was recently revealed the extent to which government agencies in New Zealand have made requests to Facebook and the like, ostensibly in the course of investigations into criminal activity.

Similarly, in the United States, government agencies have long been exploiting social media to its full capacity in their efforts to anticipate and solve crimes.

Facebook employs 25 people solely to deal with surveillance requests, and Internet Service Providers are constantly collating search term data and being vigilant for red-flagged behaviour, which is then passed on to the authorities.

For those who are concerned about privacy issues and the State overstepping boundaries in its attempt to be omniscient, this all sounds very alarming.

The double-edged sword is that participation in social media is on the rise, with new sharing sites being developed at the rate of knots: users can choose whether to Tweet 140 incriminating personal characters, or post an Instagrammed photo online, or load a confessional video onto YouTube.

Even your “professional” profile on LinkedIn is not safe from prying eyes brandishing a search warrant. Yet given that “online” is where everything is happening now, the choice to leave social media sites altogether can represent the epitome of Hobson’s dilemmas.

A recent case in the US, however, has shown how social media, thanks to the lack of prudence of the young people using it, can be used to piece together a prosecution case for rape, providing much of the circumstantial evidence needed to fill out an otherwise sketchy picture.

In August 2012, a 16-year old girl attended a party with her peers, drank heavily, and was witnessed in a gradual state of intoxication at various times of the evening by other partygoers. Waking up next morning, naked under a blanket with a young man of previous acquaintance, the girl had no recollection of the night’s events.

Two weeks later, an internet blogger who had grown up in the same town read that two of the high school’s top football players had been arrested for the girl’s rape.

Being familiar with what she felt was the sexist, misogynist culture of her hometown, the blogger took it upon herself to start investigating, using social media to piece together a picture of what had happened that night.

In this most public of domains, the blogger found an Instagrammed photo of the unconscious young woman being carried by her ankles and wrists by two grinning teenage boys.

She unearthed tweets from fellow students that belied disturbing attitudes to rape, the treatment of women, and the events of that evening. There was even a mobile phone video uploaded to YouTube where (easily identifiable) young people at the party boasted about raping and the just deserts of anyone who found herself in that situation.

Even the victim knew about the media explosion and what people were saying about her. She tweeted, “I will officially never be able to trust a boy ever again.” And, “If someone is dangerously inebriated you help them out not take advantage of them. Who the f*** raised these people?” And, “Please everyone just drop it.”

The blogger compiled all the screenshots from Facebook and Twitter and so on, and sent them to an ex-police officer she knew, now working at the state Bureau of Criminal Investigations. When he didn’t respond, she posted her evidence on her own blog, and watched the hits climb exponentially.

When the girl and her parents had initially reported the rape, a few days after the party, there was no physical evidence of a crime and the victim had no memory of one occurring.
Had this happened fifteen years ago, the boys who were subsequently arrested would have escaped suspicion.

Until the advent of smartphones and Twitter, rumours simply floated around high schools and then dissipated, no one ever really knowing the full truth about a situation.

But in this instance, it was the YouTube video that gave the prosecutors something to go on. By identifying those who had been aware something was going on, they started to scour Twitter accounts.

The police called in witnesses and obtained warrants to seize the mobile phones of several of the boys involved, on which they found incriminating photographs of the victim in various situations that suggested assault.

Some had taken videos and pictures of the girl throughout the night, and these naked images of an underage person constitute the crime of child pornography in the state of Ohio.

Even as the teenagers realised the investigation was underway and texted one another urging deletion of incriminating evidence (particularly the “confessional” YouTube video), much of their communication was recovered by forensic agents.

By January 2013, the case had garnered national attention, and the hacking collective Anonymous got involved in propagating the blogger’s story in an attempt to bring about justice.

Anonymous hacked into several students’ e-mail accounts and posted the video on YouTube again, where it has been viewed over 2 million times. Other justice interest groups have joined the campaign, and the case has gone nationwide in terms of media exposure.

The local prosecutor in the case said she routinely stalks her own children on Facebook and Twitter, knowing from professional experience how valuable social media can be. She has caught many a drug dealer who has boastingly posted pictures of himself alongside stacks of drugs and bundles of money.

In March this year the two young men accused of rape were adjudicated delinquent (the equivalent of a guilty verdict); one sentenced to a year in juvenile detention; the other, convicted of both rape and disseminating child pornography, sentenced to two years and ordered to register as a sex offender for twenty years.

The common catch-cry from governments who are looking to broaden their powers at the expense of individual privacy is that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about.

Though this may chafe at those who feel the government’s snooping of their innocent communications is just as undesirable, it is nonetheless interesting to note this prime example of how social media – the epitome of sharing and self-exposure – can innocently shift on its axis to become an unintended tool of self-incrimination in the efforts to capture perpetrators of crime.

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