Perhaps it’s simple human nature, wanting to share information about what’s happening in our lives, that has led to the over-proliferation of social media posts. For investigators, people’s tendency to publicly memorialize everyday activities, locations we visit and photos with friends offers a treasure trove of potential evidence for open cases.
“Everything happens on Facebook. The amount of information you can get from people’s conversations online, it’s insane,” Lieutenant Robert Salter of the Newport Police Department commented to the Associated Press.
The AP reports that Salter’s department — consisting of less than 100 officers serving a coastal Rhode Island community of 24,000 — submits multiple requests each week to technology companies for access to the online data they’ve collected, and Newport is hardly alone. According to research accumulated during the first half of 2020, the most recent statistics available, Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft all together received more than 112,000 requests from city, state and federal officials. Snap, owner of the Snapchat app, tallied nearly 17,000 requests for those same six months, a dramatic increase from the less than 775 made by law enforcement in 2015. The AP also stated that 85% of those requests were filled.
“Most of the companies do play ball,” said Salter. “We can speak with people, get questions answered. They’re usually pretty helpful.”
In addition to reviewing posted material, agencies ask for metadata that reveals to whom and when individuals make calls or send messages. It recently came to light that law enforcement organizations have requested that judges or magistrates add a gag order when presenting warrant applications for data. Such an order bars technology companies from alerting account owners of law enforcement’s intent. When gag orders secured by the Trump Department of Justice expired this spring, tech companies informed two Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives that they, along with some of their staff and staff’s family members, had been subjects of subpoenas seeking digital evidence.
The AP further reports that law enforcement is directing Big Tech to preserve data generated by specific users, most likely without their knowledge, thereby blocking the information from being deleted, so it can then be seized with warrants at a future date.
While civil liberties watchdogs express concerns over the apparent lack of transparency associated with tech companies cooperating with law enforcement, Salter insists safeguards remain in place.
“Judges are not going to sign off on something if we don’t have probable cause to go forward. We’re not going to look at people’s information without having something to go on,” he said. Salter then added one final piece of advice: “Don’t commit crimes, and don’t use your computer and phones to do it.