Browse and bust: How social media is a help and a hindrance to fighting crime

Social media can be a help and a hindrance to police investigations. Dani Lantala/Global News

Summing up the day with an Instagram story, sharing events and news on Facebook or Snapchatting a video. They’re all common activities for many people—including criminals and the victims of crime.

So how does the everyday use of social media help police—and how does it hinder investigations?

More and more often, videos of criminal activity, threats or even false accusations are being shared online.

Those cases include hate crimes and crimes of a sexual nature, like child or revenge pornography.

“More often than not, those are things that are encountered by the public when they’re browsing social media and they bring it to our attention,” Peters said.

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A Calgary Police Service constable was charged on March 9 with child pornography offences following an investigation that started with an unknown social media user uploading child exploitation materials.

In situations like that, social media can help an investigation.

“You need good people recognizing bad and doing something about it,” Peters said.

Watch from February 2018: Calgary teen fight clubs are popping up on social media, which has sparked warnings from police. Nancy Hixt reports.

Click to play video: 'Calgary teen ‘fight club’ videos on social media prompt warning from police'
Calgary teen ‘fight club’ videos on social media prompt warning from police

Investigators may also use social media to find witnesses or as an investigative tool, as it gets information in front of a lot of eyes.

“Law enforcement can’t be everywhere all the time, so we don’t have eyes and ears everywhere,” Peters said. “How many million people in Alberta? And they can all help us.” 

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But even posts that are legitimate take a significant amount of work to verify.

Where there’s help, there’s hindrance

While police are often notified about legitimate crimes or threats because of social media, officers also get caught up exploring claims that, in the end, are false.

“They have to be investigated,” Peters said. “So that is taking officers off onto these other tangents. And then after you’ve investigated, you have to go and really look at it and compare it to the original and find out whether or not it is related. It slows you down a little bit.”

Concern and fear swirled in the town of Okotoks in November after a woman posted online that her teenage daughter had been attacked — her throat cut in her backyard.

The RCMP confirmed to media they were investigating the incident and suspect description provided by the family, but later determined it “did not take place as originally reported.”

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“The reported situation was magnified as a result of social media,” RCMP said at the time.

Social media can also magnify situations that involve vague threats made against a person or place, according to Calgary Police Service (CPS) Staff Sgt. John Guigon. He suggests panic spreads when people start repurposing information.

“The more times it gets posted, the worse it gets — to the point where people are pulling their children out of school and schools are on lockdown,” said Guigon, who is part of the behavioural sciences unit.

Watch from March 7: Calgary police had to reassure the public they were safe after threats were made online. Officers in Calgary, as well as the Cochrane RCMP, tried to clarify information being spread on social media. Bindu Suri reports.

Click to play video: 'Social media posts cause panic during Calgary police investigation'
Social media posts cause panic during Calgary police investigation

Along with false reports, the over-sharing of information on social media also poses a problem for police investigations, especially if what’s shared is “hold-back evidence” that investigators are intentionally not revealing.

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“If every single detail about a crime is known to the public – how can you find a jury?” Peters said. “And if the ‘bad guy’ confesses, well the defence can simply argue, ‘Well of course he confessed, everybody knew that.’”

Another tricky situation is if police are notified of a crime through social media and no victim comes forward.

“We would not be able to lay any criminal charges without victim involvement,” Peters said. “We would have to backtrack that hearsay and go back to the source and they would have to say what happened.”

He went on to suggest that while hearsay can sometimes help an investigation, other times officers can be canvassing neighbourhoods, knocking on doors and looking for clues in the wrong places.

“That’s why you can’t just jump on the social media bandwagon,” Peters said. “And that’s the same reason we — as investigators — don’t.”

Watch from December 2017: Cellphone video shows a verbal and physical confrontation between a Superstore employee and customer at a northeast Calgary Superstore.

Click to play video: 'Video captures racist tirade at Calgary Superstore'
Video captures racist tirade at Calgary Superstore

“Sometimes the rumour mill is true — never entirely but partially, and that can help you get to the facts. And sometimes it is completely made up on purpose with just the idea of creating chaos or creating sensationalism or attention.”

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What are police allowed to look at?

While some may think investigators can take a peek through almost anything on a social media user’s account, police can only see what every other user can see, according to Staff Sgt. Cory Dayley with the CPS cyber forensics unit.

“We don’t have any special access to social media beyond those privacy settings,” Dayley said, adding that things like private messages are off limits.

He says police forces work closely with social media sites, especially in urgent emergency situations, to gather subscriber information and digital data, like IP addresses.

Investigators file what’s called a “preservation request,” which means a company like Facebook would save the data attached to a person’s Facebook page for a certain amount of time. That should give police enough time to get judicial permission to access it.

If a Facebook page then leads to an IP address and internet service provider, the investigators have to repeat the same process with the service provider to get additional information.

Police use many tactics during investigations, but when it comes to private Facebook information, their hands are tied. Dani Lantela/Global News

In an urgent situation that’s unfolding in Canada–that process could happen within a matter of minutes, Dayley said. If the person or organization with information that investigators are looking for happens to live in the United States–that process can take days, weeks, months or even more than a year.

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“Technology has allowed for people to commit crimes quicker and more anonymously and take advantage of people online,” Dayley said. “And it’s very difficult for law enforcement to always get that information.”

The Calgary Police Service and Alberta RCMP take all online threats seriously and say each one is investigated thoroughly. In appropriate cases, charges are laid.

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