News Column

Social Media and Smartphones Play Key Role in Investigations

April 1, 2013

Jessica Shumaker

Over the last decade, Thom Cates has had a first-hand view of the rise of social media, personal technology and their effects on criminal investigations.

As a detective for the Buchanan County Sheriff's Department and a member of the Western Missouri Cyber Crimes Task Force, he's seen his work shift from a focus primarily on crimes against children to crimes ranging from burglaries to sexual assault.

"It used to be that computer crimes was a small segment of the criminal justice community and now it's everything," Mr. Cates said. "Computer crimes is no longer a little pebble in the garden, it's the whole garden. It just depends on what type of crime you're working on, there's almost always a computer element."

In recent weeks, trends in social media and smartphone usage have converged in cases like the Steubenville, Ohio rape case, where the rape of an intoxicated teen girl was documented on sites like Twitter and Instagram and thousands of pieces of digital evidence told the story of what took place.

Mr. Cates said the proliferation of personal devices has made them the starting point for investigations.

"With any case anymore, we start with going through Facebook and Twitter accounts, any type of social media," Mr. Cates said. "We're now doing background through that stuff as well as just the normal investigative steps we'd take."

Sgt. David Hart, supervisor for the electronic crimes unit at the St. Joseph Police Department, agreed.

"Every crime now has some piece of electronic evidence associated with it," he said.

The two said being able to scan a phone or a computer hard drive can give law enforcement officers an advantage over pounding the pavement to track down people in a suspect's life.

"The benefit to a phone or computer is you can see what they and their friends are talking about and what's being discussed from one device, so without having to track down 15 people, you have it all right there," Mr. Hart said.

In addition, police can also gain information a person may not even be aware is being collected on their device. Mr. Cates noted that a significant amount of location tagging and other information gathering takes place with the use of smartphones, for example.

The two said many people also do not realize that when they put information online, whether it's a photo or a status update, it can linger on after it's deleted.

"Deleted is a suggestion. It's harder to see, that's really all it is, because deleted data, in most cases, is still there," Mr. Hart said. "It's just whether or not you can access it."

When it comes to cases like the Steubenville case, the two said they think the change in how people communicate is driving the willingness to share incriminating evidence online.

Mr. Hart said it's an extension of what suspects would do before the rise of social media -- brag about their crimes in person to other people.

"To them, that's the same thing as sitting around with your buddies and talking about that stupid thing that you did," he said. "There's that digital disconnect that, 'I'm just sharing this with my friends,' well, (you're sharing it with) your friends and their friends and their friends of friends and the random cop with the fake Facebook page."

Mr. Cates said he sees social media as making a more attention-hungry culture. In addition to criminals wanting to tell others, they want others' reactions to reduce their level of guilt.

"That's just my hypothesis on it, (that) when you get so much attention from your negative behavior, that cancels out your feelings of guilt or remorse that you normally feel," he said.

Mr. Cates said the Steubenville case showed that the people involved were able to get positive attention for taking part in the crime.

"When they're getting so much positive attention for this horrifying crime, it almost gets rid of that feeling of remorse that they would normally feel, that feeling of guilt or fear that they would normally feel over someone finding out about this crime," he said.

Source: (c) 2013 the St. Joseph News-Press (St. Joseph, Mo.) Distributed by MCT Information Services

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