Social Media Primer for Investigators - Technology and Communications -

Social Media Primer for Investigators

The methods and technology typically used by the public is readily available to law enforcement



Lane Wheeler | Mike Keleher | Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Authors' Note: Headlines repeatedly cite the dangers of victims posting sensitive information online, and the amount of information posted daily which criminals can misuse is nothing short of staggering. It is imperative for investigators to understand the information being routinely posted, the technology involved and common posting practices. Understanding the social media websites used in popular culture may enable law enforcement to use these same websites as investigative tools.

This article examines the methods and technology typically used by the public that are readily available to law enforcement if they make Internet based research a standard part of their investigations.

Investigators are in the people business. They always have been. A pen and notebook are considered to be essential to any investigator who gathers information. With the advancements in personal computing, the Internet, social media and smart phones, these items are now just as critical as a pen and notebook when it comes to documenting personal information about suspects, witnesses, family or friends.

Computers are now utilized in conjunction with every imaginable crime and will become even more entwined in the future due to the wide spread use of cyber technology in modern life.  As part of this phenomenon, law enforcement investigators should be familiar with the popularity of social networking, its uses and abuses and understand that the actual user figures are unprecedented.

Starting with targeted age groups, most police arrests occur within the 18-29 year old age group. According to 2009 statistics from the FBI Uniform Crime Report, young adults ages 18-29 comprised 44% of all arrests, whereas adults ages 30 and older comprised 42% of all arrests (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2010).

Combined with this information, investigators should note as of 2009, 72% of young adults ages 18-29 have at least one social networking profile, and 47% have a public profile available for viewing by anyone on the Internet (Cox Communications, 2009).   The study published by Cox Communications noted users willingly provided personal information including their real age, photos of the user, current city, videos and pictures of the user and friends, cell phone numbers and email addresses. For older Americans, 47% of online adults ages 30 and older have an account on at least one social networking site (Lenhart, Purcell, Smith, & Zickuhr, 2010), and 52% of these adults have two or more different profiles.

While these two age groups possess nearly equal arrest rates, young adults are much more active in social networking than older adults and are more likely to have elaborate online contacts and viewable personal information.

Research Options
Cyber based inquiries have the ability to gather and display extensive personal information in seconds instead of days or weeks of record searches. Google searches were originally seen to be a vast improvement upon Internet searches of individuals who may have been cited on the web. Building upon the Google concept, searches via the Internet have been upgraded and expanded by Internet search sites like, which are known as social network aggregators. These aggregators scour data from many online as well as offline sources and report it back to the user. This type of service digs much deeper into information that isn't always viewable via a standard search.

Some of the information is free, but they also offer affordable subscription rates like $14.85 for a three month subscription, which provides the subscriber with the ability to research names, phone numbers, email addresses, usernames and associated friends. Entering a name into the search engine can result in routine reporting on the name, age, address, email addresses, gender, photos, videos, hobbies, economic health, estimated wealth, review of 86 social media sites, blog posts, family household make up, property details, maps, estimated value of property, politics, religion, education and occupation, family tree and neighborhood information. All of the information is publicly available, but the aggregator pulls from sources not routinely viewed or thought of when research is conducted on potential suspects.

In addition to Internet based search engines, the emerging platforms of choice for researchers are social networking websites, where users create a profile and upload content ranging from pictures, video, maps, and live check-ins. Some of the most popular social networking websites include Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and Hi5.  Often, these sites encourage constant interaction, so other people can update and comment on a person’s profile, in near real time. This information can range from posting a link to an interesting article, music, photographs, videos and comments on the most important or banal moments of a person’s day-to-day life. The ease with which people can expose their private lives often results in over-sharing of private information, leaving users vulnerable to exploitation or attack.

“Profile” Of a Typical Cyberstalking Victim and Facebook
With such huge amounts of personal information being posted, it is a boon to cyberstalkers who want to gather intimate information with minimal risk while remaining anonymous.

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Lane WheelerResearch Intern Lane Wheeler is a senior at Georgetown University and Research Intern in the NCIS Headquarters Death Investigations Unit...


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Mike Keleher

Mike Keleher is Division Chief of Criminal Investigations, Violent Crime and Cold Case Homicide at NCIS Headquarters, Washington DC...


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