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Yes We Can and Should Be Looking at Social Media
By Art Bowker, Cybercrime Specialist
Published: 06/18/2018

Socialmedia 1 The following article was written in response to "Facebook Bans Violence, Crime and Criminal Behavior - Is That Possible?".

Recently, one of my fellow Corrections.com contributors posted an article on social media issues that I feel compelled to response to. He notes that “Social media is now a super-highway for mass murderers and their grievances. It’s also used for day-to-day criminal activity.” Additionally, he notes that Facebook is “banning” criminal activity from its pages. From there he goes south and comes up with the following conclusions:

"Facebook and other social media entities plus the justice system face an immense challenge as to keeping people safe. As offenders change tactics, will we be astute enough to recognize ongoing criminal behavior?

It’s my assertion that the justice system does not have the capacity, training or time to monitor the social media accounts of offenders on a large scale. If that changes, do we have societal and legal approvals?

Do parole and probation agencies really want to know? Probably not; it will greatly increase their rate of failure.

It’s also my opinion that social media sites do not want to be in the business of policing their platforms; it’s a slippery slope and partnering with law enforcement is bad for business. It’s my guess that their “credible threat” manifesto is not easily actionable.

Thus for all the reasons above, social media monitoring is a quagmire. Remember this the next time a mass murderer broadcasts and acts, or a sex or violent offender uses Facebook and someone is hurt or killed. Critics will say that the ‘system’ failed to take action. There are reasons why.”

If I had to summarize the above in three sentences they would be: Facebook, law enforcement, probation/parole, etc. don’t attempt to police social media it is just too big. You can’t do it as you might violate someone’s rights. Probation/Parole don’t do it as you might have to revoke someone’s supervision if you find something. Let’s start with the first one:

Social Media is Too Big

Yes, social media is big. But there are ways to make things manageable. Let’s start with Facebook. They have made a policy that criminal behavior will not be tolerated on their platform. Remember, they own that platform and we as users agree to their terms of use. If they determine that something violates their policy they remove it. There is no judge or jury to decide these things. We as users agree to their terms. If we as users don’t like the terms we don’t have to use their site. They are putting these rules in place to make their site safer for all users. They do use “algorithms” to detect bad behavior but they also take reports from other users on problem postings. Do they catch everyone the minute it happens? No, they do not. But what would you have them do? Should they allow criminals to run a muck on their platform? That would be like Walmart saying drug dealers, muggers, etc. feel free to use our parking lots to commit crime.

Now let’s turn to law enforcement a bit. Many police agencies and private sector companies are using software that search for key terms in social media. These programs are very sophisticated and allow for searches to target multiple terms, geographic areas, etc. These programs are being used to help secure big events, such as the Super Bowl, World Series, etc. Law enforcement also uses social media to investigate after the fact, particularly if they have a suspect and want to see if they can find further evidence. There is not only software out there but there is law enforcement training on conducting social media investigations which cover techniques and the law. (One such event is coming up Washington, DC from August 19-22, 2018). I have listed at the end of this piece the groups that provide on training and/resources on these kinds of investigations.

Okay, finally, let’s look at probation and parole. They don’t have access to software that searches all social media for problems. But then again they not are supposed to be looking at everyone. Their focus is just the offender’s under their supervision. Is their entire caseload on social media? No of course not, so that limits the number further. Do all their offenders require that kind of scrutiny? Again, the answer is of course not. Probation/Parole also have the ability to ask offenders questions and to get info on an offenders’ social media accounts, which can greatly reduce the time needed to search for those accounts.

One thing that troubled me about this article is it didn’t reference the American Probation and Parole Association’s issue paper, The Use of Social Media in Community Corrections. This issue paper provides guidance about the issues associated with conducting these kinds of investigations. Why would you take a position on probation/paroles role with social media without mentioning a topic specific issue paper written by a professional organization for probation/parole? (By the way, they are updating this issue paper too). Those groups that focus on training noted below are also resources for probation and parole agencies.

Violating Someone’s Rights

I think this is one of the most troubling issues I have with this contributor’s position. If someone posts something on social media for literally the world to read, how in heaven’s name is that post somehow off limits for law enforcement or a probation/parole officer to view? Sure there can be concerns in doing social media investigations but those can be addressed with training. Sure agencies might have to update their policies but it can be done. Heck, take a look at that issue paper I mentioned above. It gives some guidance on legal concerns.

You might have to Violate Someone’s Supervision

Is he serious about this conclusion? My fellow contributor gave an example of what if you see a social media post of an offender with a gun. Well, a gun is not only a technical violation but in the case of an felony offender on supervision, it is a violation of federal and state law. Guns by the way are bad things for offenders to possess. Yes, you have to prove it is a gun but this is not a small technical issue. It warrants inquiry/investigation. Yes, there will be plenty of technical violations that might be uncovered. But that doesn’t mean they all have to go back to prison. For instance, you have social media posts of an offender using drugs. Maybe that results in the person going to treatment. A social media investigation does not equate with someone going back to prison every time. Social media investigations can be a useful tool. What other tools should we stop using as they might end up with someone going back to prison? The objective is NOT to keep offenders in the community at all costs. The objective is to keep them in the community if it’s safer to do so.


My advice to my fellow contributor or for that matter anyone writing on cybercrime and corrections is to take a look at my past posts on corrections.com. I have been writing about this topic since 2007. They will give you a bit more information than just shooting from the hip. On that note I left my cigar lit somewhere. Be safe out there.

Art Bowker (@Computerpo) is a cybercrime expert with over 30 years experience in law enforcement and corrections. In 2013 he received top awards from both the American Probation and Parole Association (Sam Houston State University Award) and the Federal Probation and Pretrial Officers Association (Richard F. Doyle Award National Line Officer and the Thomas E. Gahl Line Officer of the Year Award (Great Lakes Region)). These awards centered on his promoting awareness and knowledge of cybercrime and tools to control such crimes in the field of community corrections (pretrial, probation, and parole). In August of 2016 Bowker was the recipient of the High Technology Crime Investigation Association (HTCIA) Lifetime Achievement Award. HTCIA is the world’s largest non-profit professional organization devoted to the prevention, investigation, and prosecution of crimes involving advanced technologies. Bowker is a lifetime HTCIA member, having served as it's International President in 2008.


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