Crime Investigations with Social Media – Fuzzy Legal Lines

As a best selling crime author, I try to keep up with trends in law enforcement. Whether I make use of these trends in my crime novels or not isn’t important. But it is important that I know about them and understand them. Increasingly, law enforcement officers are using social media for their crime investigations. Police are using a number of social media platforms to solicit crime tips and share safety related information, according to an article on the Security Management website.

Crime Investigations Buoyed by Social Media

Digital marketers began monitoring chatter on social media to get a feel for what people said about the companies and brands they worked with. Things have changed. Digital and content marketers still listen to brand chatter, but police and other crime investigators have begun using it to help in their investigations. Using a software tool called BlueJay, police can scan massive volumes of discussions and users on Twitter.

Cops can configure BlueJay to monitor tweets or posts from a certain metropolitan area or even subdivision. It’s not a violation of privacy because the tweets and posts it monitors are all public anyway. It can’t view private messages (like Twitter Direct Messages) or other private postings. But since it can monitor large volumes of public chatter in real time, it’s a powerful tool in the investigator’s toolbox.

According to the BlueJay website, investigators can:

  • Access the full Twitter firehose
  • Geofence and visualize tweet locations
  • Monitor selected keywords and users
  • Drill down into a specific user’s activity

Is that a little unsettling, or what?

Although the posts cops monitor are public information, they must still practice responsibility in their investigations. For example, in my opinion, police should not monitor political rallies and then show up to snap images of participants. Law enforcement supervisors should develop a social media monitoring policy and train their officers about acceptable use of these tools.

Despite concerns you or I may have about this type of social media monitoring, it’s probably not going away anytime soon. LexisNexis conducted research in 2012 that focused on understanding the role social media plays in crime investigations. This quote from their website says it all: “With over 1,200 federal, state, and local law enforcement professional responding, it is clear that despite significant barriers to access and training, law enforcement has embraced social media as a key tool in pre-identifying and investigating criminal activity.”

Check out this infographic from LexisNexis (click to see a larger version):

law enforcement social media


What do you think? Are you concerned that the sophisticated tools law enforcement uses to monitor social media activities could one day be abused and violate the privacy rights of typical citizens?


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