Social Media and Law Enforcement: Friend or Foe

The vital role that the social media plays in our society is far from reaching its pinnacle. In result, with the potential for exponential gain within the social media, comes the act of balancing privacy and profitability. This struggle emerges in instances where law enforcement needs the assistance of social media companies, in order to facilitate their investigation.

In July 2012, BBC News Technology wrote an article about the ongoing relationship between law enforcement and Skype.[1] The articles provided an insight to Skype’s priority of protecting the privacy of its users at the expense of law enforcement’s investigations.[2] While initially denying the notion of creating system changes to allow accessibility for law enforcement, Skype eventually made changes in that direction that indirectly made it slightly easier for law enforcement to obtain “users’ chat data.”[3]  On a broader scale, social media and Internet companies have taken to Washington, DC to voice their opinion.

A newly formed lobby interest group, “The Internet Association”, has been created to protect the needs of Internet companies and express their opinion of the direction that laws and regulations should be passed.[4] With topics ranging from the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA) to the required sales tax collection, The Internet Association’s main objective is to establish a unified voice within Washington, DC.[5] However, this main objective can be perceived as an underlying front against additional request from law enforcement to divulge information that most Internet companies are hesitant to distribute.

The importance in the corroboration of social media companies in law enforcement investigation is monumental:

“Social networking rapidly has become a valuable intelligence-gathering tool for law enforcement agencies, as well as a source of evidence for defense and prosecution personnel who search Facebook pages, Twitter feeds or YouTube videos seeking to discredit witnesses, establish law enforcement bias, track down evidence or establish associations between gang members. Often, perpetrators brag about their crimes on social networks, and child pornographers and sexual predators have been located and apprehended as a result of their online activities.”[6]

A survey done by LexisNexis of 1,200 federal, state, and local law enforcement professionals documented that “4 out of 5 respondents use various social media platforms to assist in investigations and found agencies serving smaller populations and with fewer sworn personnel (<50) use social media more, while state agencies tend to use it less (71%) than local (82%) and federal (81%) agencies.”[7] Additionally, the survey established that “67% believe social media helps solve crimes more quickly and 87% of the time, search warrants utilizing social media to establish probable cause hold up in court when challenged, according to the respondents.”[8]

What is cutting edge today becomes obsolete tomorrow. Consequently, the rapid rate of improvement within technology and social media will create new methods of communication through the use of the social media for criminals, in order to avoid detection. This will impend on the law’s ability to establish the predictability within the justice system, which is a pillar within our judicial structure. The open channel of communication between social media companies and law enforcement, within legitimate boundaries, must be established from the onset as to not hinder the growth of the social media industry while preventing crime and manipulation of these innovative tools of communication.



[1] Skype denies police surveillance policy change, BBC News Technology (July 27, 2012, 11:04 AM), http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-19012415.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Vivian Wagner, New Kid on K Street: The Internet Association, TechNewsWorld (July 26, 2012, 03:16 PM), http://www.technewsworld.com/story/75751.html.

[5] Id.

[6] Wayne Hanson, How Social Media Is Changing Law Enforcement, Government Technology, Aug 5, 2012, http://www.govtech.com/public-safety/How-Social-Media-Is-Changing-Law-Enforcement.html.

[7] Press Release, LexisNexis, Role of Social Media in Law Enforcement Significant and Growing (July 18, 2012) (on file with author), available at http://www.lexisnexis.com/risk/newsevents/press-release.aspx?id=1342623085481181.

[8] Id.

Author: Fabrice Charles

Fabrice Charles is a fourth year evening student at Rutgers School of Law - Newark and a Senior Editor on the Rutgers Computer and Technology Law Journal. Mr. Charles graduated from Seton Hall University in 2008 with a B.A. in English and a double minor in Political Science and Legal Studies. Currently, Mr. Charles works for the US Attorney’s Office in Newark, New Jersey as a Paralegal Specialist in the Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Force Unit. After five years of experience and more than 15 trials as a paralegal, Mr. Charles is still learning something new each day. Within his law school environment, he is a clinical student for the Rutgers Community and Transactional Lawyering Clinic. Aside from school and work, he is an avid soccer player, snowboarder, and weekend mechanic. Upon graduation, Mr. Fabrice Charles will clerk for the Honorable Maritza Berdote Byrne, Superior Court Judge in Morris County, Family Part.

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