They say a picture is worth a thousand words. For law enforcement investigators, they can be worth a lot more than that.
Social media is creating the largest facial recognition software database right under our noses. Individuals that rail against the government for privacy infringement are the same ones that are posting photos of themselves, their family and friends and even take the time to tell us their exact location through geotagging. Is this counterintuitive or just counterproductive on their part all for the sake of shares and likes? Whichever the answer is, these photos are a boon for law enforcement investigations.
Photographs and videos on the web can provide law enforcement with a myriad of things. They can uncover evidence, prove or disprove alibis, identify individual(s), locate fugitives and be used as an admission of guilt. Most importantly, when an investigator builds a list of suspects, they do so by identifying the means, opportunity and motive. That one photo can provide the necessary information to establish probable cause or to exonerate an innocent person. The “opportunity” is what separates the suspect from the others.
What is Geotagging?
A fugitive is on the run; do you think he will use social media to check in? Of course they will, it’s already happened a number of times. Geotagging is an Internet term for location. Every smartphone, tablet or device has the capability of adding a location to every photograph / video taken or SMS message sent. Many people use this function so they can “check in” to locations on social media. Many people are unaware of what they are doing. Like my parents always told me, “Ignorance is no defense.”
Investigators must think of geotagging as electronic breadcrumbs that can either place someone at or near the crime scene or corroborate an alibi. Most, if not all of the social media platforms have stripped out the EXIF data – short for Exchangeable Image File. However, that doesn’t stop individuals from adding it back in later. If you haven’t noticed, before posting a photo on several social media platforms like Flickr, Twitter, Facebook or Instagram (owned by Facebook), they provide the user with a number of locations to choose from. So, even though he EXIF was stripped out, people put it back in.
There are many free EXIF viewers available online, so experiment with a few of them to test which one provides the best results. Remember, not every photo you find will have the GPS data attached to it, so keep looking for others that do. I would recommend using more than one to double check your search to help in avoiding errors.
Reverse Image Search
In 2013, the DEA settled with a woman for $134,000 after they used her photos as the basis for an undercover social media profile. In hindsight, this wasn’t a very good idea, especially since it is so easy to track images on the Internet through a reverse search. There are a number of tools that do reverse images, but I choose the most widely used search engine, Google and its reverse image search tool. The Reverse Image Tool is easy to use, even the bad guys use it in an attempt to discover undercover police profiles. This is why investigators should NEVER use personal photos to conduct police work. Keep your private life private! All a user has to do is put the link of the photo into the tool and it will show where else that image is used and what sites it is associated with.
Depending on which web browser the department is using, ask to have the reverse image tool added to it to make it even easier to use – I call this “Cop proofing it.” Chrome, Bing and Firefox all have an add on tool for this purpose. Other uses of reverse image searches are that they can sometimes provide you with the name of the person in the photograph, identify frauds and track down other sites with similar photographs. When used as part of an overall investigative strategy, reverse image searches can provide invaluable evidence in cases.
Criminals are using the Internet and social media to talk of their exploits and plans for the future. It is up to law enforcement to discover it and build prosecutable cases. Law enforcement administrators must have a social media policy in place for investigations and a procedure to follow while collecting electronic evidence. Without a policy and procedure, the evidence collected won’t matter. Defense lawyers will have a field day.