Technology changes everything. It not only changes what we do with our free time, but how we think. Fast internet and on-demand entertainment can be linked to shortened attention spans, while knowledge of even complex concepts can be accessed by just about anyone, bridging the gap between societal classes. Another thing that has been transformed thanks to technological advances, specifically social media, is crime.
In the past, law enforcement’s knowledge about criminal activity was limited to what they saw or could get out of informants. Now, social media has opened up a whole new world. In a study of over 1,000 federal, state, and local law enforcement active on social media, 4 out of 5 officials said they used social media to collect information on investigations. In 2011, following the Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver, police took to Facebook and Twitter for tips and were shocked by the response speed and quantity they received from civilians. Social media has not only helped police solve crimes, it’s helped citizens connect with police.
How exactly is law enforcement accessing information via social media? When a person has their Facebook profile public, it’s easy for cops to check up on them. However, a criminal might have privacy settings on their page, so cops have to look at profiles that are connected to the criminal. Whatever the criminal posts on a friends’ wall that’s public, the cops can access it. A less common approach is for law enforcement to actually create a fake online profile. It’s surprising how many criminals will just accept a friend request. If neither approach works, law enforcement will need a warrant or subpoena.
The social media company can refuse the subpoena, but they’re usually savvy enough to know not to stand in the way of justice. In the warrant, law enforcement has to explain why they need access to a profile, and if they need it right away, they can put in an emergency request. When a cop is given access to a profile, they can see everything, from photos to browsing history. In 2006, law enforcement got access to over 800 chats conversations and 2 ½ years of data from a man preying on underage girls. That information was used in court to convict him.
What about 4th amendment rights? What about privacy? That’s been a huge debate in the law community. Many legal experts say that as soon as you store information on a website, you give up your rights. While that makes sense with public information, like comments on public pages or profiles without privacy settings set up, the idea that once something is on the internet, it’s a free-for-all, is disconcerting. Civil liberty groups are working towards increased privacy rights, especially since sites like Facebook claim to be concerned with the privacy of their users.
In addition to changing how law enforcement handles crime, social media has changed criminal behavior. Criminals looking for attention now have easy routes to do so. Murder and rape has been recorded and posted on live social media services, and people in the thousands are watching it. Has society become so desensitized to violence that the line between reality and fantasy is blurred beyond recognition? And what’s the responsibility of the social media company? If the company is providing the opportunity for such brazen criminal behavior, they need to also provide a way to prevent it. The company isn’t the one responsible for the actual acts themselves, but they are responsible for the broadcasting platform. It’s time for them to step up.