How Social Media Has Changed Criminal Investigations


In today’s digital world, law enforcement investigations can benefit from the attention paid to social media posts, photos and videos. Understanding the role of social media forensics and how to use it effectively is essential in your criminal investigations.

What is Social Media Forensics?

Social media forensics involves the collection, analysis and storage of information, photos, videos and other electronic evidence from sources such as Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, WhatsApp, TikTok, Reddit, Instagram, Twitter , Pinterest, LinkedIn, Nextdoor and others. for the purpose of locating criminals.

The Growth of Social Media and Social Media Forensics

A recent report from the Congressional Research Service estimates that 70% of adults used some form of social media in 2021, up from just 5% in 2005. This increase in popularity means that more and more people are sharing their lives via social media and, as far as criminals are concerned, let or potentially post evidence through these social channels and platforms. Naturally, law enforcement agencies are also increasingly focusing on social media, as the 2016 survey law enforcement by the Urban Institute and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Social media forensics in action

In 2015, a young woman was found dead on the side of the road in Saskatoon, Canada, with a belt near her body. Three years later, Saskatoon police convicted Cheyenne Rose Antoin of manslaughter on the basis of a photo of Antoine posted on Facebook of her and the victim taken earlier on the night of the victim’s death. How? The police were able to demonstrate that the belt Antoin was wearing in the photo was the same one left at the crime scene. The police might never have been able to link Antoin to the crime without this photographic evidence on Facebook.

More recently, police in Detroit, Michigan used a SnapChat lead and TikTok Videos of Chozen Terrell-Hannah dancing to find him and arrest him for four armed robberies. The main evidence in Terrell-Hannah’s dance videos were her shoes, which police say are similar to those worn by the thief.

In Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, a man was arrested and jailed after law enforcement learned he was using the social media app, Kik, and others to solicit minors. As in the Antoin and Terrell-Hannah cases, social media forensics provided key evidence from social media accounts to link the suspect to the illegal actions.

When is the right time to start a social media survey?

When is it time to incorporate social media forensics into your investigations? As soon as possible. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for people to threaten to use violence against others using Facebook, Twitter or other social media platforms. But, if you respond to the threat quickly, you may be able to intervene before any criminal acts are committed. Additionally, starting your social media investigation early will help ensure that potentially relevant evidence is not lost, destroyed or corrupted (intentionally or unintentionally) or associated social media accounts are shut down before completion. of your investigation.

Social media forensics can also play a vital role in older cases, such as assisting police in unidentified and missing persons cases. In June 1995, a young man left his house to go on a Grateful Dead tour, and he never came back. The young man was a passenger in a vehicle which suffered a terrible accident in Virginia, killing the driver and the young man. The driver’s family did not know who the young man was to inform his family. An updated police composite sketch based on the autopsy photos ended up on a Facebook page in 2012. The young man’s brother and mother saw the page and recognized him.

Properly conduct social media forensics

The key point you need to remember is to comply with the laws governing the collection of evidence when conducting your social media investigations. Depending on where you live, you may need a warrant to obtain information from a social media platform about an account holder that is not made public by that person.

Additionally, each social media platform may have rules or policies that impact your ability to obtain information.

Digital tools used by forensic investigators on social networks

Social media investigators have a variety of tools to collect and analyze social media information, such as:

  • Manually visit social media account pages
  • Print or take screenshots
  • Downloading copies of files
  • Access open source software or other software to collect and maintain information
  • Subpoena or use of court order for production of information and documents

The importance of social media forensic tools is essential as people share their lives online. Law enforcement agencies will continue to rely on sophisticated tools to collect and analyze evidence more efficiently. Learn more about Thomson Reuters risk and fraud solutions for law enforcement to learn more about how we can help with your social media investigations.


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