There's been a debate about government intrusion into our digital lives ever since the NSA snooping scandal involving Edward Snowden.
But police have been using social media to gather evidence to build cases for years now. In fact, it's become a routine part of police work.
Social media has really become a part of most of our lives. It seems like everyone is walking around with their smartphones.
We all document many parts of our day. So do criminals, people breaking the law. They're leaving a trail of digital evidence, photos, status updates, and checking in to locations. Police have been taught to look for fingerprints and DNA, interview witnesses, and now, they're taught to look for the digital evidence, that includes investigating a suspects social media.
Facing fraud charges, a California woman took off on the run. Confident she was in the clear she sent out a tweet, "Catch me if you can."
Well the U.S. Marshals did and she was back in a courtroom this week, and her Twitter trail helped crack the case.
Social media has quickly become an important investigative tool. Police officers are on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter gathering evidence, building cases, and following leads.
A recent survey found eight out of 10 law enforcement officers in the United States use social media to catch criminals. It's become as routine as patrolling city streets.
"Citizens put tons of information out there about themselves, unknowingly I think sometimes, and the bad guys do as well," said Memphis Police Lt. Wilton Cleveland, an expert in computer forensics. "So we use that as an investigative tool."
Lt. Cleveland said social media can crack a case wide open, from a robbery to a homicide, after criminals leave behind digital evidence on their social media pages, profiles or feeds.
"The investigations are a little more difficult because you know that evidence is out there any you have to work to get it and before it was just, it didn't exist," Lt. Cleveland said. "It's kind of like before DNA. Before DNA you had fingerprints and that was about it. Now you have to, you approach crime scenes differently because of DNA evidence recovery. Now you approach evidence recovery differently because of social media and those types of things."
A lot of the information investigators are looking for is publicly available. But in some cases detectives or prosecutors have to request access to information or get a court order.
In the wake of the NSA spying controversy, Facebook revealed it had received between 9,000 and 10,000 government requests for information in the last six months of 2012, and that includes a wide range of requests both from local and federal authorities.
Facebook has made it easy for police officers to request information, creating an online request form.
A spokesperson for Twitter sent FOX13 News a frequently asked questions page outlining how they deal with law enforcement. Twitter won't release private information to police without a valid search warrant.
Police officers stress, if you haven't done anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.
"We're not looking at people's Facebook pages just to be looking at people's Facebook pages," Lt. Cleveland said. "When we get a complaint we'll address it and if we develop a suspect we'll see if they have any kind of social media that they are primarily on. It helps us usually, and sometimes it helped us identify suspects when we didn't have any other leads."
WHBQ-TV | Fox 13
Didn't find what you were looking for?