The Effects of Social Media on Undercover Policing

Social networking sites make it very difficult, if not impossible, to have undercover police officers:

"The results found that 90 per cent of female officers were using social media compared with 81 per cent of males."

The most popular site was Facebook, followed by Twitter. Forty seven per cent of those surveyed used social networking sites daily while another 24 per cent used them weekly. All respondents aged 26 years or younger had uploaded photos of themselves onto the internet.

"The thinking we had with this result means that the 16-year-olds of today who might become officers in the future have already been exposed.

"It's too late [for them to take it down] because once it's uploaded, it's there forever."

There's another side to this issue as well. Social networking sites can help undercover officers with their backstory, by building a fictional history. Some of this might require help from the company that owns the social networking site, but that seems like a reasonable request by the police.

I am in the middle of reading Diego Gambetta's book Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate. He talks about the lengthy vetting process organized crime uses to vet new members -- often relying on people who knew the person since birth, or people who served time with him in jail -- to protect against police informants. I agree that social networking sites can make undercover work even harder, but it's gotten pretty hard even without that.

Posted on August 31, 2011 at 6:21 AM • 40 Comments

Comments

PeteAugust 31, 2011 6:51 AM

Some of this might require help from the company that owns the social networking site, but that seems like a reasonable request by the police.

I think "reasonable" depends on the site, the country and the police. Could end in tears.

JohnAugust 31, 2011 7:38 AM

This is a variation on not posting stuff on facebook that will be later used against you in a job interview.

People bang on about CCTV and privacy then post all that stuff on facebook.

JayFromBKKAugust 31, 2011 7:57 AM

So if I post false info on a social networking site they can suspend or delete my account, but if a cop wants to do the same thing they should bend over backwards to accommodate it?

Mike BAugust 31, 2011 8:12 AM

In my opinion organized crime is an existential threat to society. Rule of law is great, but there are certain circumstances where you have to simply give someone 6 stars and shoot them in the head. As seen in Mexico entrenched criminal gangs can make themselves immune from all the standard forms of criminal justice due to their use of violence and intimidation. A commitment to civil liberties should not be a suicide pact and we should all be able to wink and nod when a well known gangster dies in a hail of bullets after resisting arrest.

Gregg CookeAugust 31, 2011 8:16 AM

Falsifying a Facebook account is just not possible in the limit because the net has deep memory: even if FB lets you post-date your content, someone somewhere is likely to have a snapshot of related content from that time period that shows a hole where you do not exist. In order for FB to maintain the claim that user's content is preserved and not messed with, they cannot allow such temporal holes to develop. This conclusion is, of course, predicated on the assumption that FB and/or the government does not control all content everywhere (which at this stage of the game is still a safe bet).

TrogdorAugust 31, 2011 8:53 AM

JayFromBKK: So if I post false info on a social networking site they can suspend or delete my account, but if a cop wants to do the same thing they should bend over backwards to accommodate it?

Agreed. While this sounds good in theory, there's massive potential for abuse, even in the most "open" democracy.

Clive RobinsonAugust 31, 2011 8:54 AM

I guess social media is becoming like tattoos, you get them when you are young (and us oldies say) foolish. However in later life they become an embarrassment that you cannot easily get rid of.

It is interesting to note some peoples attitudes, I don't do social media and have no wish to do so. However you get this attitude from some people that you have to be a member of "linked-in" or other social network with pretensions to "professional networking". When they say "you've got to be a member" and I say to them "Why?" not only does it draw them up short with a puzzeled look, they usually cannot give a sensible answer.

As I've pointed out to some of my European colleagues they need to be aware of laws in various nations. For instance the European legislation on personal data ownership is markadly different to US legislation, even though there is supposed "safe harbour" agreements in place it only covers direct data not derived data.

Fairly soon your direct PII will be effectivly meaningless compared with derived data from the direct PII and other activites you might carry out.

It became clear a number of years ago that there realy is no such thing as "anonymized" data because the derived data from it gives the same fingerprint as from non-anonymized data.

And one way or another be it by payment, legislation or court order other people who would do you harm either maliciously or by side effect of some process will get their hands on the data about you.

For instance in the UK the "Tax Office" known as Her Magisties Revenue and Customs (HMRC) have decided that PayPal and E-Bay records are a good way to trawler for those who potentialy "owe tax". The thing is UK tax legislation is so complicated they can find you guilty of something, and with the Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA) they can strip you of all your assets prior to going to court so you cannot afford sensible representation.

And the fun thing about POCA is that those prosecuting get to keep 18% of the recovered assets, so there is obviously no conflict of interest there then...

As I tell clients "Paper Paper Never Data" any piece of paper you produce has your legal copyright on it automaticaly thus you can limit what others can do with it rather more than you can with data.

As has been pointed out for more than four thousand years "First know your enemy" so the sensible thing to do is not alow a potential enemy (everybody) know you to the point it is detrimental to you? or more simply why make an enemies life easier?

So from my point of view dumping your life as data online where anybody in the world can get at it is a bit odd, and kind of the same as running naked past every CCTV camera you can find with a target painted on your behind...

TrogdorAugust 31, 2011 8:58 AM

Oh. P.S. A game I like to play now: (Very Long Google Images URL Here) Posted by: Poster of Brucedom Currently Being Tracked by the HUD
Kinda funny how there's a picture of Bruce Willis in there. I see the similarities.

Jim AAugust 31, 2011 8:59 AM

OTOH, somebody told me that when he was in the local police academy that he had a talk from a person who HAD gone on a long term undercover infiltration of a criminal gang. The plucked him from the academy and put him undercover. His cover story was that he had been kicked out of the police academy...

NobodySpecialAugust 31, 2011 9:51 AM

One of the sunday comics did a peice on the FBI academy. There is a shop where you can buy FBI t-shorts, hoodies etc

Above the cash register was a sign saying "You are reminded that FBI branded merchandise should not be worn during undercover operations"

RogerAugust 31, 2011 10:11 AM

"The results found that 90 per cent of female officers were using social media compared with 81 per cent of males."

Strange. This is considerably higher than the population average. Nearly triple. Odd.

max630August 31, 2011 10:23 AM

> once it's uploaded, it's there forever

History of Internet to date shows that this (unfortunately, for most purposes) not so true. There is a lot of info which has disappeared, and sometimes even existing things cannot be easily found by google. So if average person removes a facebook profile and optionally "kindly ask" google and couple of other searchers to forget about it, probability that it will be found by criminal not mich higher that they will know about the person by other means.

The only exception from this could be people that does preliminary data collection about people with intention to find police officers in future. But such people, as soon as they start using the data, must become noticeable by police.

uk visaAugust 31, 2011 10:27 AM

Near the topic of how criminals communicate... I didn't know until recently (NPR Fresh Air - America's 'Secret Campaign' Against Al-Qaida, I think) that terrorist groups are communicating with each other within the realms of online games such as World of Warcraft.
I guess it might strike people who play such things as obvious, but to me it seemed pretty imaginative.

Mike AshAugust 31, 2011 10:33 AM

"Social networking sites can help undercover officers with their backstory, by building a fictional history. Some of this might require help from the company that owns the social networking site, but that seems like a reasonable request by the police."

How about taking the opposite approach? Break up criminal gangs by creating fake profiles of some of their members implicating that they're really undercover cops.

Richard SchwartzAugust 31, 2011 11:23 AM

Let's say you create an entire network of friends, and friends of friends for an undercover officer. If you're not going to do that, why bother? It doesn't add much support for the fake identity. But the more you do to create a fake social graph for the undercover operative, every person in that fake social graph is another opportunity for someone to say "Hey! I went to that high school, and I never heard of that guy!" This doesn't sound like a good idea to me.

David RommAugust 31, 2011 12:08 PM

Somehow, I don't think that the police are going to tweet, "Undercover at Cavandish Gang HQ. Listening to plans for raid."

Deep undercover usually requires assuming another's identity.

Is the reverse true as well? Do criminals brag about their exploits on social media? If so, is their first-person confession admissible in court?

GabrielAugust 31, 2011 12:27 PM

@Mike B: There's a problem with that. Sure, there have been many times in history that not following habeas corpus was probably the only way to suppress a rather violent group, such as the Ku Klux Klan during the late 19th century and the 1960's, but who makes sure that we don't end up getting LA style corruption (early 20th century)? Extra-judicial killings are very difficult to control, and are often abused by law enforcement who finds their new powers are useful for more things than taking down violent criminals. Of course, one could argue that Mexico has gone past organized crime to a state of insurgency, and demands martial law. But either way, it's a slippery slope that is often difficult to climb back out of.

SynjaAugust 31, 2011 12:35 PM

You're forgetting that social networks are private corporations, they have every right to run their businesses as they see fit, up to and including segregating users and assigning various rights to those users.

Everybody comes down hard when they think they see an invasion of privacy or a myriad of standards... but what about a person or private entity's rights to run their affairs as they see fit?

There would be an uproar if the government told you how to interact with your friends, but hat is exactly what some of you are demanding of other private entities.

SynjaAugust 31, 2011 12:37 PM

@Gabriel, yes... there have been plenty of social media based convictions/searches/etc.

Most notably the recent looting and riots in London.

B. D. JohnsonAugust 31, 2011 4:52 PM

I haven't dug through Facebook privacy settings recently, but last time I did there was an option to explicitly disallow people from tagging you in pictures. Same with being searchable, plus there's an option to suspend/delete your account, after which all your posts, tags, etc. disappear.

I, personally, have a bunch of privacy set because I work casino security, and enough people get pissed off at being arrested that I've had a few hits on a "honeypot" profile I set up and made publicly searchable. I just friend all those random friend requests you get, have a few generic pictures of me. Never gotten angry messages or threats on my private Facebook profile.

GabrielAugust 31, 2011 6:12 PM

@Clive: "running naked past every CCTV camera you can find with a target painted on your behind..."

So I take it that is not a game that you play regularly? Be glad that your post isn't on youtube. Or you'll start seeing more videos with people running naked past CCTV cameras...

@Gregg: That's the first thing I thought about when I read this. I think the more dangerous fact is that elephant in the room, which is that the overwhelming majority of people have a many years long trail on the net. Forging that online identity will be very difficult and could probably be easily spotted as a fake. Think of it as a background check performed on prospective criminals, perhaps calling your mother, your former roommate, etc. to find out if you are who you say you are. Similar to what the government and prospective employers do for a background check, except they don't even have to ask you about your relationships on a form. If they feel like you are too much of a nobody, they probably won't let you in to their organization. I could even see some corrupt or illegitimate investigation services doing this for a fee.

Darn, i forgot to type my name (I did now). I got worried when I clicked post and my comment was blocked. Didn't think I offended the moderator too bad in the past.

hopeAugust 31, 2011 7:01 PM

"So if I post false info on a social networking site they can suspend or delete my account, but if a cop wants to do the same thing they should bend over backwards to accommodate it?"

I think that would have the opposite effect. If you can post false data as a crimanl(bound to happen) you have more power and the cops lest(can possible fake data)

AndrewAugust 31, 2011 7:47 PM

A well known biker gang around here, the Hell's Angels, is said to have in its rules that you can never become an Angel if you have ever applied to be a peace officer.

Seems reasonable to keep out those who were "kicked out of the academy."

Nick NSeptember 1, 2011 12:22 AM

I never understood the criminal organisation vetting process where prison time is a plus. Who would you rather hire, a thief who spent 5 out of the last 10 years in prison and is on every criminal DB known to man, or one that the police do not even know exists.

Also, how would a social media site know that the information you are posting is false?

CédricSeptember 1, 2011 7:16 AM

"I agree that social networking sites can make undercover work even harder, but it's gotten pretty hard even without that."

On the other side, with the new generations it will look more and more suspicious to NOT have a profile in a social network site at all...
When receiving CV from candidates, the first thing I do is to google the name. When no facebook answer shows up, I can't but think that this person is perhaps a forged identity...

When it comes to undercover policies, using a genuine profile and progressively updating it with false information might be a good compromise?

@Mike Ash:
"How about taking the opposite approach? Break up criminal gangs by creating fake profiles of some of their members implicating that they're really undercover cops."

Beware of false positives :) but I like the idea. Actually, that's another reason why one should have a presence in the social networks. Don't do it, and you're exposed to someone creating a profile on your behalf. And with the current facebook mechanics, this means automagically inferring tons of information through tags made by friends etc...

ArclightSeptember 1, 2011 10:26 AM

When I first read the headline, I immediately thought this article was about how easy it is to track criminals via their Facebook pages.

Social networking sites could be a problem for law enforcement seeking undercover officers, as everyone under 35 seems to like spilling the details of their life in real time. However, I think this same trend just made life easier for officers working on all but the hardest cases to get information, keep track of parolees, etc.


Arclight

NobodySpecialSeptember 1, 2011 11:00 AM

Surely the criminal gang just hands over the photo of the new member to their bought and paid for local cop and gets their true ID back? Just as you do for celebrity phone numbers

With more security this will be easier, they just send the retinal scans, dna and embedded RFID chip code to somebody who works in the Indian call center processing the IDs and for $5 you get back all their details

legendaryOzSeptember 1, 2011 12:49 PM

This is a reality. Tactics for undercover agencies have to change to adapt to reality. There is new technology that helps undercover agencies, and there are strategies which can work around this.

SSeptember 2, 2011 3:19 AM

@ Cédric:

"When receiving CV from candidates, the first thing I do is to google the name. When no facebook answer shows up, I can't but think that this person is perhaps a forged identity..."

Seriously?!

JasonSeptember 2, 2011 9:52 AM

Man, I just Googled my name and there is a Facebook profile and MySpace profile with the same name that aren't me. And I'd rather not be associated with the ignorance in the Facebook profile. I don't even have a very common name. At least my LinkedIn profile is the one that shows up first.

So if someone is trying to Google me for intel, they'll get stuff that isn't even me. Great.

SomebodySpecialSeptember 3, 2011 5:16 PM

@ Cédric:

"When receiving CV from candidates, the first thing I do is to google the name. When no facebook answer shows up, I can't but think that this person is perhaps a forged identity..."


A lot of people in security do not use facebook. Also, with women, they may change their names, use their maiden name, etc. Many people use fake names on FB already. Despite rules against that.


JonadabSeptember 7, 2011 9:59 AM

> Strange. This is considerably higher than
> the population average. Nearly triple. Odd.

The average varies considerably with geography. Around here, the percentage of the population that has ever used the internet in any way is significantly lower than those figures, and for social media it's much lower than that (possibly as low as 25%, depending on what exactly counts as "social media"). However, the numbers would be rather higher in the immediate vicinity of a college campus, and it also varies by proximity to large cities and from one nation to another, among other variables. It is not difficult to imagine a geographical location in which the numbers could be that high.

OTOH, it's also not difficult to imagine that police officers might have different averages from the population at large. Various professions have various differences from the population at large. Public libraries, for instance, have an astonishingly sharp gender skew (toward female). The military is almost completely devoid of members of certain religious groups (e.g., Mennonites). The percentage of people with a four-year degree varies a great deal from one profession to another. Et cetera. People with different personalities and backgrounds gravitate toward different professions.

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