January 6, 2021, represents a harrowing moment in the annals of American history. The Capitol riot was characterized by an unprecedented use of social media for communication, as observed by numerous law enforcement officials. Platforms like Gab and Parler were instrumental in disseminating real-time information about police locations, advising on which streets to avoid, and openly sharing details about tools used for accessing building doors.
In the aftermath, federal agents examined hundreds of thousands of social media posts and used them as evidence to prosecute those who participated. From posts before the event claiming what an individual was about to do to selfies taken during the insurrection itself, social media data ultimately helped to provide evidence on hundreds of individuals for their role in the day’s events.
While the January 6th insurrection investigation is one of the more well-known instances of law enforcement relying on social media data, federal, state and local agencies have regularly come to use the information on these platforms as investigational leads. That hasn’t always been the case, though.
“When I joined law enforcement, we were not aware of social media, as it had not emerged. It was only later that we began to understand its powerful and influential role,” said Stephen Henderson, senior relationship manager at Spokeo and retired law enforcement officer of 20 years. “As time progressed, the industry embraced the importance of social networking and especially self-reporting and how that information could be extremely helpful when working either an active or cold case.”
THE ROLE OF SOCIAL MEDIA IN POLICE INVESTIGATIONS
Historically, law enforcement’s go-to source of personal information has been from data aggregators largely using historical billing records, but those records can easily become stale. On the other hand, people update their social media accounts far more often and are more likely to reveal up-to-date information about their location and day-to-day activities on those platforms. These unique insights can provide another source of intelligence that otherwise may not have been uncovered.
In police agencies today, investigative training is actively taking place which prioritizes open-source methods to better understand a person of interest, explains Henderson. This open-source intelligence (OSINT) can be accessed from any public database. In addition to OSINT, many departments are now also emphasizing the use of social media intelligence (SOCMINT) specifically to further investigative efforts.
Unfortunately, data gathered from social media platforms isn’t always viewed as an equal source of information and the time it takes to scour individual platforms can be extensive, sometimes yielding disappointing results. For instance, an officer may not even have the full name of a person of interest, which may not even directly relate to a given screen name, making searching for them on social media a true needle-in-a-haystack endeavor.
Although social media platforms have multiplied exponentially in the last decade, there is a way for investigators to analyze patterns and trends within the data they find without spending countless fruitless hours. Spokeo allows officers to search OSINT and SOCMINT databases to uncover a wide range of information relating to a person of interest and brings efficiency to any ongoing investigation.
WHAT IS SPOKEO?
Spokeo, established in 2006, initially emerged as an innovative aggregator of social networks. Over the years, it has evolved into a crucial instrument for law enforcement investigations. Central to Spokeo’s development has been its commitment to an intuitive user interface, ensuring accessibility for users of varying social media familiarity.
The platform simplifies the investigative process. Traditionally, probing through individual social media sites for information on a subject is time-consuming. Spokeo streamlines this by leveraging advanced techniques honed over more than a decade. Upon entering a name, phone number, address or email, Spokeo rapidly searches across over 120 networks, unearthing open-source information almost instantaneously. The platform is continually updated, integrating new networks that may not be immediately apparent to law enforcement officials.
For investigators juggling multiple cases, the time saved using Spokeo is invaluable. The platform allows for a rapid review of numerous social networks, a task that would otherwise require at least 20 to 30 minutes per site when conducted manually – a process that could accumulate to many hours.
Furthermore, Spokeo’s capabilities extend beyond gathering information on the primary subject. It provides additional insights by linking the subject to family members, partners, friends, business associates, and others through the social media data it compiles. This holistic approach offers investigators a more comprehensive understanding of the person of interest and their connections.
CLOSING CASES FASTER WITH SPOKEO
Using Spokeo in any investigation isn’t a magic bullet – while the platform can uncover a range of data to help officers learn more about a person of interest, an investigator’s skill is still important. Henderson explains how several recent cases have been cracked using Spokeo.
“I received a phone call late at night on my cell phone from a patrol officer who was a bit concerned,” he said. “He was from a small agency outside Columbus, Ohio. He said a set of parents came into their precinct and were very concerned because an individual they believe to be a male has been sending lewd and lascivious photos to their children.”
According to the officer, this activity had been going on for some time, but the children had finally decided to tell their parents. The individual sending the pictures then threatened to show up at their school the following day and “shoot everybody.”
With only the username the individual used to send the photos, the officer in Ohio was able to locate the person’s Instagram account through Spokeo. After several phone calls to Instagram and AT&T, an IP address was uncovered which led to the suspect’s physical address.
“This individual has been convicted and is now registered as a sex offender. The lead/investigating officer was later promoted,” Henderson said.
In another instance, an individual was arrested and after his father secured his release, he fled the area. Local law enforcement already had an address and phone number for the suspect but was unable to determine where he was hiding.
Henderson and other law enforcement officers queried the suspect’s father on Spokeo and found a phone number that federal agents did not have. After serving an investigative subpoena on the phone number, they noticed multiple calls made to a hotel in Denver, Colorado. Federal agents conducted surveillance at the hotel and, after a four-hour standoff, arrested the suspect.
Aside from searching well-known social media platforms, Spokeo aids investigators in locating other unique insights to help close cases. One such scenario took place in Northern California, where an individual out on bail was not able to be located.
The suspect used Facebook to post about the construction jobs he was working on, but Spokeo uncovered that he also had an account on a sales platform called OfferUp where he published his phone number for a vehicle he listed for sale.
Investigators also queried who they believed to be the individual’s girlfriend and found that the background of the image where the vehicle was for sale matched the background seen in a picture the woman posted. The suspect was later arrested at that location.
“When presented with a situation, there are generally specific clues and/or information you can work with to help uncover the next steps when looking for a person of interest,” said Henderson. “Sometimes it can be as simple as a phone number or pursuing a social media handle.”
Visit Spokeo for more information.