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A Primer on Criminal Association in Cyberspace
By Art Bowker, Cybercrime Specialist
Published: 03/14/2011

Teen-computer A prohibition against any criminal associations is a standard condition common in community supervision (probation, parole, supervised release, etc.). John Augustus, father of probation … “manifested an insistence on separating offenders from their criminal acquaintances.” (Panzarella, 2002, pg. 40). The basic premize has been that when offenders associate with another it frequently leads to more serious noncompliance, such as drug use or other criminal conduct. What exactly is criminal association? One source defines it as:
“ … any planned, prolonged, or repeated, personal, telephonic, or written contact with a person having a felony record, or engaging in criminal activity, and/or if you had knowledge of, or should have had knowledge of his, or her felony conviction or the criminal activity in which they were engaged during the times of your association. Incidental contact is not considered association.””
Association on the job or during treatment is not usually considered criminal association. It is hard to ascertain how many supervision cases are actually revoked for the technical violation of criminal association. One study found that approximately 35 percent of all the recorded parole violations were for technical violations and two-thirds of these cases were from absconding supervision. Another study found 9 percent of probation cases were revoked for technical violations. However, neither of these studies provided specifics indicating what percentage of the technical violations were criminal association in nature. It would seem to make sense that criminal associations would be related to new law violations in some manner. If this is accurate, they may be more present in the cases where revocation occurred as a result of a new conviction than solely revocations due to technical violations alone.

Prior to the advent of social networking sites (SNS) criminal association violations were sometimes detected during a chance home visit or possibly a “prison letter” found in an offender’s possession. Unfortunately they too often were first discovered in a police report of all individuals arrested with an offender during a new crime.

However, offenders are now associating with one another in increasing numbers on social networking sites (SNS), such as Facebook®. This trend raises the interesting possibility that supervision officers can be more proactive in detecting criminal associations as opposed to waiting for an offender’s arrest report to identify their problematic associates. What kind of numbers are we talking about? One recent case found almost 15% of one offender’s total “friends” were individuals they had meet while serving time in prison. This may be an extreme case but even one criminal association may be enough to get an offender into noncompliance.

SNS are used by offenders in much the same way as the general public, i.e. to communicate and maintain contact with friends and relatives and to make new contacts who share similar interests. However, when supervised offenders have contact with other offenders via a SNS, they are violating their association condition. What kind of trouble are we talking about? Supervised offenders have been posted on their Facebook® wall such antisocial activities as:
  • Bragging about criminal conduct, including showing images of drug use and gun possession;
  • Warning other associations about police investigations;
  • Threatening alleged informants and witnesses

It is ironic that many of these activities are posted in public areas of an offender’s profile. However, most SNS also allow individuals to send private messages to one another. With mobile phones, a SNS presence can provide immediate access to one’s criminal associates. The contact is not only immediate but can also be simultaneous with all of one’s fellow felons. If they are publicizing such activities to the world we can only surmise what are they communicating privately among themselves.

Supervised offenders cannot be prohibited from using SNS unless their conditions, state law, or the SNS precludes their use. (See Facebook: Sex Offenders Need Not Apply!) However, officers can provide clear instructions to all supervised offenders that criminal associations in cyberspace are also not permitted. Supervision officers should also routinely request e-mail addresses and SNS information from offenders. With this information officers should also conduct what Blalock, refers to as “virtual home visits”, to ascertain what supervised offenders are posting as well as whom they have reflected as associates. Don’t do this with your personal SNS profile for this will provide your private information to your offender. You should have a SNS profile set up specifically for this purpose. Once a profile is located officers should document its condition in some manner. These profiles can be changed very easily and document and preservation is a must. One excellent program for this purpose is WebCase®.

Supervision officers should also periodically check popular SNS, such as Facebook® to see if their offenders have an undisclosed profile. Searches by emails, names, and alias, can frequently detect these. If these searches fail try searches of their close family/friends, to see if the offender’s profile is associated with them, and work backward.

Many individuals will have portions of their profile set to private but most will neglect the listing of their friends/contacts, which is what you are interested in when checking for criminal associations. Many SNS have search features that allow users to search for their own friends/contacts on another individual’s profile. This feature can be used to check for criminal associations among an offender’s friends/contacts. Consider the following:
  1. Check first for co-conspirators on past and current offenses;
  2. Next check for friends/contacts that are clearly not an offender’s relatives;
  3. Check for friends/contacts that are flashing gang signs or displaying similar antisocial conduct.
  4. Check for friends/contacts that appear out of place which might indicate they meet outside of the offender’s neighborhood, such as in correctional setting

Take the identified names and see if they match information in local or regional criminal records databases.. If so, and depending upon the SNS, determine when they were added and what posts where made by them. Additionally, identify additional names that you may have missed based upon your first inquiry. For instance, sometimes an offender will add several of their inmate friends at the same time. You might have detected one but missed others that were added at the same time. Also check the criminal associations you have identified and see if similar friends/associates are listed on their profile. For example, your offender has John S and Tom J who you have identified as a felon. You look at John S and Tom J and find Billy W as a friend/contact of both. Billy W is also an friend of your offender. You didn’t initially identify Billy W but check him now and you might find he also has a criminal record.

By now some of you are probably thinking this is great if their profile is very public. What about those who have their profile set to private? Well, most supervision conditions provide you the method to get into those private profiles. For instance, supervision conditions frequently provide that an offender will allow their officer to visit them at home or “elsewhere”. In this case “elsewhere” is their SNS profile. Another condition is follow your officer’s instructions. Using your investigation profile, request they allow you as a “friend.” Once accepted examine their site briefly, including their friends/contacts and remove yourself as a “friend.” Like a traditional home visit your are not interested in being a permanent fixture in their virtual space.

If they refuse you may need to seek more intrusive methods to find out what is going on. Be forewarned though. Some offenders when directed to provide access merely close their SNS profile. Without proper legal paperwork (frequently a search warrant) you can’t get at the closed account. However, they have violated your directive, which can result in a sanction and you have at least temporarily closed down a possible criminal association venue.

After you have found several criminal associations on your offender’s profile, time to confront them about these as well as to ascertain how they came to know the other contacts listed on their profile (just in case you missed some). Once you have proven criminal associations you have to take corrective action as well. The action may be a verbal or written reprimand with direction to purge their SNS profile of the unapproved associations. However, you may be seeking a sanction or even a revocation if you find more serious violations during your examination of the SNS.

This was just a brief overview of how to start addressing cyberspace in one’s community supervision practices. Professional readers are strongly encouraged to seek out training on conducting these investigations. Again, one of my favorites for this is the High Technology Crime Association . I understand that Wojo, Jimmie and the gang are working hard to have a hell of a training conference at Indian Wells, CA, September 12-14, 2011. It looks like they are going to have a lab or two by Vere Software, makers of WebCase®. I am sure there will be plenty of training on social networking investigations as well as computer forensic topics. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention that Vere Software also has a free webinar series concerning online investigations. Don’t forget to tell Wojo, Jimmie and Todd (at Vere Software) I sent you!

With proper training and practice the time needed to check an offender’s SNS profile will decrease. It clearly makes sense for all community corrections agencies to take the proactive step of checking supervised offender’s SNS profiles as opposed to waiting until an offender associated themselves into a new criminal conviction. Trust me, you don’t have to be a cigar smoking fool like me to learn this stuff!

References

Blalock, Shannon F. (2007) Virtual Home Visits: A Guide to Using Social Networking Sites to Assist with Offender Supervision and Fugitive Apprehension, District 1, Division of Probation and Parole Kentucky Department of Corrections.

Bonczar, T. and Glaze L., “Probation and Parole in the United States, 2006″ (Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin NCJ 220218) (Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics, December 2007)

Grattet, R.; Petersila, J.; Lin, J.; and Beckman, M., “Parole Violations and Revocations in California: Analysis and Suggestions for Action” Federal Probation, Vol. 73, No. 1 (June 2009)

Orientation to Supervision United States Probation Office, Eastern District of Missouri

Panzarella, R. “Theory and Practice of Probation in the Report of John Augustus” Federal Probation, Vol. 66, No. 3, (December 2002), pg. 38-42 Retrieved from http://host4.uscourts.gov/fedprob/2002decfp.pdf

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