One thing you can say about the bad guys is that they're no slouches when it comes to adopting the latest and greatest in technology. Phishers and hackers are almost as old as the Internet itself. Small wonder then that socially minded criminal organizations gravitate toward social networking to stay connected.
Myspace, Facebook and Twitter are popular with gang members and police use this to their advantage. Law enforcement has been able to infiltrate street gangs to root out individuals involved in gang activity, pose as fellow gang members online, make connections and even prevent crimes being planned by intercepting communications as they happen. Information gathered like photos, videos and friend links help law enforcement understanding the dynamics of gangs when investigating their activities.
"Investigators build phony profiles to 'friend' gang members either within YouTube, Facebook or Bebo and then may migrate that friendship to another platform and gain trust and get their 'friends' to share useful information," said Lauri Stevens who provides web design and interactive media advice to law enforcement.
Identifying Gang Members.
Constable Scott Mills was initiated into the world of social media in 2004 while investigating a youth gang stabbing in downtown Toronto. The police were able to find the perp online when they saw aliases tagged on the wall of an arcade where suspected gang members hung out. From there they went to the web and searched for those aliases as user names on popular social networking websites. They hit paydirt.
"The suspect was bragging about having stabbed the teen victim on AsianAvenue.com," Constable Mills said.
While cyber bullying among suburban teens has been in the news lately it's obviously not a new phenomenon. Toronto Police found that gang members were using the web to intimidate and threaten others.
"The gang members were cultivating a culture of fear and intimidation of youth online on instant messaging sites like MSN and on social networking sites like asianavenue.com and blackplant.com," Constable Mills said.
Connecting The Dots.
According to an article in 219magazine, police in Cincinnati used Facebook and MySpace to follow more than 20 members of a local gang, the Northside Taliband. The evidence they gathered helped law enforcement connect members to a multitude of crimes, including a possible homicide.
Other agencies have employed these tactics as well. The NYPD is trying to monitor gang activity online and have even produced results that made it into the mainstream media. In a story reported in the Daily News, cops said that gangs have been communicating on Twitter. They think that one Twitter exchange between gang members may have resulted in the shooting of a youth. The police seek out code words and slang used by individual members to follow gang members online who are organizing illegal activities.
"It is another tool ... just like old phone records," a police source said in the article.
Collecting Evidence & Information.
Collecting information by surveying the online landscape is akin to the tried and true way of doing things, like shifting through a potential criminal's garbage. It can be good for building up intel profiles on suspects and their activities.
Ken Davey of the Hong Kong Police Force said on a LinkedIn group dedicated to Law Enforcement 2.0 that Law Enforcement Agencies using Facebook pages to get access and trust as a way of infiltrating gangs should combine new techniques with the old ones.
"I would imagine that this requires a mixed use of traditional physical approaches as well as online, initially at least," he said.
Davey said he'd even heard of police using tweets and flash SMS to coordinate raids on gang run establishments when traditional forms of communication like phones or radio were difficult or dangerous in undercover operations.
"The downside is that it needs a great deal of technological resources and expertise that some Law Enforcement Agencies just don't have access to," he said.
Can Social Media Be Used As Evidence?
Davey pointed out that there may be a downside to using social media in investigations. He warns that the evidence collected on social media websites may be moot in a court of law depending on the jurisdiction's rules or privacy legislation making things complicated.
Missouri Attorney Rex Gradeless said that many states have enacted statutes that increase sentencing for crimes if they are gang related. For example, Missouri Revised Statutes (578.425) provide increased sentencing for any one convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor which is committed for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with, any criminal street gang, with the specific intent to promote, further, or assist in any criminal conduct by gang members.
"In order to prove the specific intent element of the crime, prosecutors may use any relevant evidence provided the evidence is not precluded by an evidence exception," said Gradeless who runs the blog socialmedialawstudent.com and has launched a new legal technology site called TechDocket.com.
According to Gradeless, in the Federal Rules of Evidence - which most states follow - "relevant evidence" is essentially anything that has the tendency to make an element of a crime more or less likely. Meaning a suspect committed a crime specifically because he was part of a gang or for the benefit of a street gang.
"If a prosecutor proved a social media page was produced by the defendant, and the text was written by the defendant, the evidence would almost always be admissible as an admission by the defendant," he said.
So in theory all public social media pages could be used as evidence in a courtroom provided proper foundation for admitting the evidence was laid by the prosecuting attorney.
"If social media pages have the tendency to show the elements of gang-related (or any) criminal activity then they can be used against defendants," Gradeless said.