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How Authorities Use Social Media to Aid Investigations

Police are scrolling through social media feeds in search of crime and in order to check up on potential suspects, all of which is raising new concerns about surveillance in an increasingly online world.

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(TNS) — Police are scrolling through social media to find crime and check up on potential suspects, raising concerns about surveillance in an increasingly online world.

Monitoring public posts on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram is a common way police departments across the country collect information about individuals or specific types of activities. Representatives of the Michigan State Police and Detroit Police Department said officers manually search public posts and also feed social media photos to facial recognition algorithms that hunt for similarities between millions of faces collected in police databases.

If your privacy settings are set to “public,” bet on law enforcement being able to access your profile. There are some basic things people can do to protect their online privacy, like setting your profile to “private,” turning off location sharing, restricting which friends can tag you in photos and limiting the amount of personal information shared on your profile.

Shobita Parthasarathy, director of the University of Michigan’s Science, Technology and Public Policy program, said lawmakers should also take steps to protect the public’s right to privacy by regulating online surveillance.

“I tend to think that policy action is the way to go because we are increasingly living our lives online,” she said. “The person who says ‘no I don’t want you to put a picture of me on Facebook’ becomes the one who appears increasingly out of step and that affects our social relationships.”

A July report to Detroit’s Board of Police Commissioners showed social media photos were used in 35% of facial recognition investigations this year. The images were used to search for matches in the DPD database and identify possible suspects.

Detroit police monitor social media feeds under the guidelines of department policy. Collecting information from public accounts doesn’t require authorization from supervisors, but police do need approval to use an online alias to interact with people.

DPD did not respond to questions about how social media images are used and whether social media photos are retained in its database.

Research from the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Urban Institute found social media is growing rapidly. A 2016 survey of 539 departments found 70% used social media to gather intelligence and 59% contacted a social media company to obtain information to use as evidence.

Civil rights groups worry that the implications of social media monitoring can be disproportionately used against minorities, activists and young people.

A 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Justice recommended police departments create strategies to monitor social media, track communications about protests, create an online alias to covertly obtain information. At the time, the DOJ acknowledged police commonly used social media for investigations.

Facebook posts were a key source of digital evidence for FBI agents investigating the U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6. Federal prosecutors cited public posts and information provided by Facebook in charging documents.

Six federal agencies also reported using images from protests and civil uprisings sparked by the death of George Floyd in May 2020.

Facial recognition technology also remains controversial because flawed algorithms sometimes misidentify people with darker skin. Facial recognition software caused the wrongful arrest of at least two Black men in Michigan.

Critics argue that collecting the faces of millions of Americans, including many who didn’t commit a crime, opens more people up to being misidentified. However, law enforcement groups say facial recognition technology is a valuable crime-fighting tool when used correctly.

The Michigan State Police maintains a database of 55 million images, which local police can also access when trying to find suspects.

The MSP database includes driver’s licenses, mug shots, ID photos and other images created by the Department of Corrections and Department of State.

It does not include social media images, according to a spokesperson, but police sometimes input social media pictures to search for matching faces in the MSP database.

A recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found 20 federal agencies own or used a system with facial recognition technology. It also found more than a dozen federal agencies didn’t know the full scope of their facial recognition efforts and lacked effective means to track the technology’s use.

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