Social networks can help police both to anticipate crime and to target more efficiently their search for those responsible for criminal acts.

Police create a fake Instagram account to bring a suspect to justice

Making use of social networks to help prevent crime is not particularly new. In 2013, the Chicago police, helped by researchers from the Predictive Technology Lab at the University of Virginia, sifted through geo-located tweets posted by people across the city.  The police’s ability to anticipate and prevent crime improved substantially as an analysis of the tweets enabled them for example to spot numerous messages indicating high alcohol consumption in a specific area, which they correctly felt would increase the likelihood of a crime being committed.

In a more recent case, the police made use of the Instagram photo-sharing social network. Following a jewel robbery, suspect Daniel Gatson published pictures of what appeared to be the loot on his Instagram account. The police launched an investigation to gather proof of his guilt. They simply created a fake account and asked to become a ‘follower’ of the suspect, i.e. the equivalent of a ‘friend’ on Facebook. Gatson accepted, which meant that although he presumably thought his privacy settings (which require ‘follower’ requests before anyone can see his feed) would keep him safe from any unwanted snooping, the police were able to obtain access to the incriminating photos.

The Instagram photos enabled the police to obtain a search warrant to scour Gatson’s home and find the stolen property. During his trial, he requested that the prosecution should not be allowed to use this evidence, as the method by which it had been obtained contravened the fourth amendment to the US Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures of goods and requires any warrant to be judicially sanctioned and supported by probable cause. However, the New Jersey district court judge rejected Daniel Gatson’s submission on the grounds that as Gatson had actually accepted the request from the fake account to become his follower on Instagram, he had de facto authorised the (incognito) police officer to examine his photo posts.

This example, and other similar cases drawing on information posted on Facebook or Instagram, demonstrate the importance of the social networks nowadays and the role they may play in judicial investigations. However, in many countries there are still no clear legal provisions on how this type of information may be obtained and used. As social networks come to play an ever-greater part in people’s lives, the legislation may have to be looked at and perhaps amended to take account of today’s realities.

By Eliane HONG