We live in a digital world. Nearly everyone has a mobile device, dozens of mobile apps, and services they rely on. Most people participate in some form of social media. We’re creating more data than ever before. Every day, 2.5 quintillion bytes of new data are created.
All these new platforms, data sources, and online mediums are making it even easier for law enforcement agencies to track down criminals. You wouldn’t think so, but they’re using tools like social media networks to identify, detect, and solve crimes.
According to a LexisNexis survey involving over 1,200 law enforcement professionals, 83% use social media—like Facebook and YouTube—to further their investigations. That includes professionals from federal, state, and local agencies.
How exactly are these technologies being used? What are some examples of technology aiding in a legal case or investigation? Here are six times technology solved the case.
Social Media: US v. Collin
You may have heard of the hacker or hacktivist group “Anonymous,” responsible for a variety of high-profile breaches. It turns out they were using Twitter to communicate with one another and coordinate attacks. Law enforcement agencies involved in the investigation monitored Twitter and used it to corroborate actions carried out by team members.
In the past, Twitter has been used by dealers to facilitate the sale of drugs, as has Facebook and a multitude of other social networks.
Monitoring social media platforms is a viable and crucial strategy to further handle cybercrime—and even conventional crime—investigations. In Anonymous’ case, the courts ruled that team members were not allowed to use social media while on probation, which is a bid to prevent them from carrying out further coordinated attacks.
Online Activities or Profiles: Hoffman v. State
Generally speaking, your online profile is separated from a single social account or profile. Why? It’s the collective image you create of yourself across all mediums. For example, sharing lavish dinners, vacations, and hotel stays across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and others will give the impression you’re well off and travel frequently.
In Hoffman v. State, an 18-year-old female was involved in a drunk-driving accident that resulted in death. She was charged with vehicular manslaughter, thanks to evidence pulled from her Myspace page and profile.
That may sound a little silly, but the image that was pulled said a lot about her character. In this girl’s case, she had several photos, images, and status updates that glamorized alcohol abuse. It showed she did not take the abuse of such a dangerous substance seriously, which ended up ruining lives.
DNA Testing Tech: Case of the Grim Sleeper
DNA testing has been around for some time now, and everyone who’s ever seen an episode of CSI or a police procedural has some idea what it is and what it can be used for. DNA is all over your body and can be used to identify you specifically. Sadly, it’s not an exact science. It relies on the DNA being correctly analyzed, and, for it to be used in an investigation, calibration companies should meet ISO/IEC 17025:2005 standards, always.
But what can law enforcement do when DNA they have tested doesn’t show up in any past criminal databases? What can they do when they’re having trouble finding a suspect?
In this case of the dastardly Grim Sleeper, also known as the “Roaming Rapist,” agencies did something controversial yet effective. The suspect would smash the heads of his victims with a rock and wrap his hands around their necks to stop them from fighting back. Sometimes he would use a gun. His reign lasted for over six years, as he raped women walking to work or home in the dark.
Instead of searching for his DNA in the criminal database, which had turned up with no answers, they searched for a relative with a similar strain. This led them to a partial match and to the suspect’s brother, who was already in custody for another unrelated crime. It also led them to the assailant who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Online Photos: Bradley v. State
Whether you are an active participant or not, it’s a given that your photo or image may wind up on the internet, most likely on social media. That point is furthered when you have your own profiles and regularly update content. This provides law enforcement agencies vast databases of information—visual information, mind you—to catch potential criminals.
In Bradley v. State, an armed robbery victim was able to identify his assailants with Facebook photos, photos that were readily available and publicly visible. Those photos were used as direct evidence to prove the assailants did rob the victim and were even added to a lineup so the victim could identify them correctly.
A member of the Texas appellate court said: “Vast online photo databases [like the Facebook photos from the trial] and relatively easy access to them will undoubtedly play an ever-increasing role in identifying and prosecuting suspects.”
Isn’t that the truth?
Digital Video Records: Lenz v Universal Music Corp
On top of embedding most smartphones with HD-quality cameras, there are a handful of new digital video recording technologies cropping up, too. Those includes smart security cameras, smart video doorbells, vehicle dashcams, and even body cameras for law enforcement.
In Lenz v Universal Music Corp, a video Stephanie Lenz uploaded to YouTube became the subject of a series of court filings because her video used the Prince song “Let’s Go Crazy” and was hit with a DMCA takedown notice by Universal. Lenz later had her video reposted—after YouTube removed it—and sued Universal for misrepresentation citing fair-use.
In cases where the video is available in the cloud, it’s a different scenario. But when it comes to private video and local content stored on a device another problem surfaces.
One of the largest problems most courts and agencies are facing right now is how to store the digital video evidence securely. Video, in general, can take up a lot of drive or storage space. It also becomes about how and where you can store that information. If you store it on removable media such as a portable hard drive, CD or DVD, then it’s not secure at all.
As you can see, technology is advancing at an alarming rate and being used to achieve more and more things. As it does, it is also being leveraged in new ways in the legal and justice system to help solve not just crimes, but court cases, too.
Whether you agree or not, technology can and will be used into the future to help law enforcement agencies and court personnel do their jobs.