Using Social Media Information

Authorities are increasingly using social media for investigative purposes. Investigations are conducted by police when they either believe or suspect the law has been broken; such investigations include identifying, gathering, and preserving evidence. Investigations are aided by the distinct functionalities of particular social networking companies’ websites, administrative platforms designed by companies to handle lawful access requests, and corporate policies to facilitate authorities access to subscriber data. 

A recent survey of 1,221 law enforcement professionals in the US found that four out of five respondents use social media for investigative purposes, 85% of law enforcement professionals use social media to identify persons of interest in investigations, and 75% use social media to identify associates and acquaintances of suspects. Though there is not large survey data concerning how Canadian LEAs use social media, our qualitative research has revealed that Canadian LEAs are widely using the network for intelligence gathering and investigative purposes.


Privacy Tools as Access Tools

Some investigators use ‘self-download’ tools to collect information from social networking services. Either investigators, accused, or social-media witness or victims can download information from social media accounts that the individuals control, with information then being used to policing or intelligence gathering purposes. 

Facebook offers a ‘self-download’ tool, Google provide data download features through their ‘data liberation front’, and Twitter provides a mechanism to download the archive of an account’s messages. All of these tools were ostensibly designed to empower individuals by letting them remove their data from social media and then close related accounts, as well as to show individuals what information the companies possess about their individual subscribers. 

One officer noted that it was a “best practice” to download information using these tools; for Canadian authorities the download tools let officers access to information that is both unavailable through readily searchable public channels, while simultaneously avoiding protocol associated with access requests that sometimes entail lengthy bureaucratic processes. 

Law Enforcement Portals

Some companies have, or are developing, ‘Law Enforcement Portals’ to help authorities access subscriber information. These portals are online service kiosks designed to give updates to officers on the the progress of access requests, give them the ability to modify existing requests, and give them the capacity to upload digitized court orders to serve on social media companies. 

Facebook launched its own portal in 2012. The company’s security personnel or lawyers receive a copy of digital orders as soon as they are uploaded, but before acting on it have to wait for authorities to fax a copy of the order to Facebook Canada’s offices. The investigating officer will indicate on the faxed request that a digital copy of the same order has been uploaded to the online portal, which is the version that is used by Facebook for their own administrative purposes.

Canadian authorities access requests have been expedited since the Facebook portal was launched. The portal is now a 24/7 operation and Facebook now responds to global lawful access requests  “every minute of the day.” The portal gives investigating authorities a ‘status update’ of all requests; it reveals how long Facebook has been processing the requests, as well as whether requests are still pending or have been completed. If a file is particularly pressing then individual authorities will often contact the company ahead of time to negotiate a more ‘timely’ disclosure of data.

Corporate Policies

Most social networking companies have created lawful access guidebooks to help authorities understand how to request subscriber data and under what conditions this data will be disclosed. These guides often include when subscriber and non-subscriber data is disclosed, whether the companies will inform their subscribers of disclosures, and time it takes to process requests. The guides also indicate what baseline information, such as usernames, email addresses, or other identifiers, the companies need to process requests.

For more information on these policies, see “What Do Companies Say About Sharing,” some of the guidebooks we are hosting, or our summary documents about these guidebooks.