We record our lives on social media -- from Instagrams of our lunch to mirror pics of our #OOTD -- but in some cases, our posts might serve to inform more than just our followers.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police reports that 95% of police agencies use social media (mostly Facebook, Twitter and YouTube) in their work. Last year, social media sites helped crack a case for 79% of these agencies.
We spoke with Sgt. Adrian Acevedo of New Jersey's South Orange Police Department, who serves on the county's cyber crimes task force, about his experiences with social media on the job. Here's what he told us...
Police are on the lookout for status updates about crimes in progress.
Acevedo: "We track what we can and what’s readily available publicly. So if there’s information that’s public, we can use that to track trends or preempt illegal activities that might go on. ... People on Twitter talking about how they’re going to do something -- if we see that, we can stop it.
"A real example is a number of years ago, we had a very big problem with flash mobs. It wasn’t like the flash mobs you see on YouTube ... [they were] designed to come and do crime. We quickly realized that these groups of people, which sometimes could be in excess of 300 people, could mobilize using social media within an hour’s time. ... Well, now we can mobilize our police forces to be there waiting to stop it from getting out of hand.
"[We also may] reach out to these people to let them know we’re here, we’re watching and that we’re going to act upon any criminal activity."
There's a legal framework involved with social media investigations.
Acevedo: "So it’s clear, whenever we have to get information from [a suspect's] Facebook or Twitter or anywhere, usually we do have to have a subpoena or warrant to get that information from them unless someone is giving us access to that stuff.
"Social media is just another way people speak to each other, and so we can keep tabs on that even when it’s private if we have sufficient cause and get a subpoena. It’s just like getting a subpoena for somebody’s phone records ... I don’t think it hinders [an investigation]; it’s just one more tool we can use."
Social media photos can place suspects at the scene of a crime.
Acevedo: "Let’s say someone is arrested for a crime and his phone may have evidence on it, evidence like where he was at a certain time or where he wasn’t at a certain time. Sometimes people take photographs, and the photographs contain what’s called metadata, and that metadata will let us pinpoint times and places where the photographs were taken."
Social media has helped police solve crimes in the past. When an unidentified group of people attacked a gay couple on the street last September in Philadelphia, police released footage of the incident and asked the public to help identify those involved. Twitter user @FanSince09 spread the word to his followers and even got several famous athletes to tweet the video. The Twitter community successfully identified several of the individuals. Read MTV's full interview with @FanSince09 here.
Police strive to differentiate online jokes from real threats.
Acevedo: "We’re not going to take something that somebody writes and run with it. We have to corroborate with other information and intelligence and observations.
"Sometimes we see something written and even though there’s not much to go on, we have to err on the side of caution. For example, if someone goes on Twitter and says they’re going to kill themselves or shoot up a school, we go all out for that. We will track down where that post came from."
This kind of police work is expanding rapidly.
Acevedo: "It’s definitely growing. ... A lot of the agencies who embrace social media and learn [about it] and have people assigned to it; I think it’s a huge asset. ... [It’s] not just about catching people’s crimes; [it’s] about helping people and getting good information [such as traffic or crime alerts] out to the people as well."
Police rarely catfish suspects with fake accounts, but it does happen.
The above image is a screenshot of Sondra Prince's Facebook -- except Sondra Prince doesn't exist in real life. Earlier this week, a woman named Sondra Arquiett received a $134,000 settlement from the federal government after a DEA agent pretended to be her on Facebook. The agent created the fake account for investigative purposes and used Arquiett's real photos under the name Sondra Prince.
Acevedo: "Does [creating fake social media profiles] happen? Yes, it happens, but not too often because there’s so much work [involved]. If you imagine your own personal Facebook, imagine trying to create a whole new fake one and keep tabs on that. It’s not something you can do 9 to 5; it’s something you need to be doing all day, all night long. That person is not in existence only partially during the day."
Private messages aren't so private, if your friends turn them over.
Acevedo: "When someone puts information out there -- even if it’s set so that only friends can see it -- you lose your privacy, so that friends can do whatever they want with that information. Someone who is linked with the target of an investigation [can] tell or show what is being posted."
But chances are, police aren't looking at your brunch pics and selfies.
Acevedo: "Police don’t care about you if you’re not living lifestyles of crime. I wouldn’t advise someone to be worried about police, because the police aren’t out to get you. ... We have much better things to do than to sit in front of a computer all day long, waiting until the time comes we need to. For the layperson, that’s not what we’re about.
"The advice I have for the regular person has nothing to do with police. Don’t put anything out there that [you] wouldn’t say [publicly] in real life, because once you put it out there, it’s out there."