Detection by Facebook: Not always an idle boast

In the world of  books and films,  it has always been cool for the best criminals to boast about their misdeeds, provided it is done with style. When the Phantom steals the Pink Panther diamond, he leaves his monogrammed glove as a clue. Raffles,  gentleman thief and cricketer,  stole a gold cup from the British Museum and then posted it to Queen Vitoria as a Diamond Jubilee present. The doyen of cool miscreants must be Cary Grant in the Hitchcock classic “To Catch a Thief”, even if Hitchcock does make him wear stripey burglar tops through much of the movie – when he’s not kissing Grace Kelly.

 

In real life, bragging about your crimes isn’t always so cool.

In June this year Tony Campbell, Boris Johnson’s cultural strategy manager, was forced to resign after boasting that he often stole his lunch from major retailers as a form of protest against their stranglehold on the High Street:

“I have a rule. If I ever go into a chain store for lunch, I always have to steal something.” proved to be his last public boast.

Of course effective boasting requires an audience and the advent of social media provides just that opportunity. This was highlighted by the recent riots with dozens of arrests made on the back of incriminating Facebook posts and photos of looters proudly showing off their recently stolen goods. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services routinely researches suspects on Facebook, stating that the “narcissistic tendencies” of those engaging in fraudulent activities finds them “friending” large numbers of people they don’t even know.

A wide range of law enforcement agencies in the US have quickly cottoned on to the new opportunities for detection and supervision which social media bring. I wrote recently about the way that probation officers in the United States routinely monitor offenders’ use of social media to uncover offending and track absconders. In similar vein, the New York Police Department has recently formed a new social media unit to catch criminals who use Facebook and Twitter to announce law-breaking plans or to brag about their latest crime. This is an unsurprising development given some  recent US crimes:

  • In March this year, one of the six killers in a homophobic murder bragged about his involvement on Facebook and was arrested as a direct result.
  • Police Magazine reported a case this August in which a Philadelphia woman reportedly posted an offer of $1,000 for anyone who would kill the father of her child on her Facebook page. Investigators say that an 18-year-old man responded that he would commit the murder. Both were taken into custody and a .22-caliber handgun was retrieved from the would-be killer’s home.
  • There is also the famous case of the residential burglar in Pennsylvania arrested in 2009 after he left his Facebook page open on a computer in the house he was burgling.

It is interesting that sometimes even the most skilful users of social media can fall foul of this seeming disconnect between online and real-life. To return to the world of politics, there was a huge scandal in the US this summer when Congressman Anthony Weiner (@RepWeiner), who was named one of Time Magazine’s top tweeters, was discovered to be sending sexual snapshots to women via Twitter. Alexandra Samuel (@awsamuel) analysed the reasons for this cataclysmic error of judgement:

“It’s no accident that a notorious Twitter #fail comes from someone who is social media-savvy. It’s a classic case of live by the sword, die by the sword: those who truly live their lives online are likely to bring their whole selves online with them.”

Recently, I think I have detected a new phase in the social media battle between criminals and law-enforcement. As we know, all forms of communication are susceptible to disinformation and spin. As an ex-probation officer with a continuing interest in the service, I routinely track the hashtag #probation through my current Twitter application, HootSuite (@hootsuite). Over recent weeks, I am increasingly seeing tweets such as:

“I miss getting #high, but #probation so you know im #stressin” and

“don’t know a single weed dealer anymore…. has it realy been that long? #probation…”

Are these Tweeters really boasting that they have stopped using drugs or are these tweets intended for the eyes of their supervising probation officers?

 

 

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