NYPD Issues Guidelines for Social Media Investigations
The New York City Police Department has issued guidelines for officers using social media as part of criminal investigations, according to the New York Daily News, which reported the news earlier this week. The guidelines come in the form of a five-page memo from Police Commissioner Ray Kelly which was circulated last week.
Police officers using social media can adopt aliases for their online work, as long as those aliases are registered with the department, and can also protect their anonymity by using NYPD laptops with untraceable Internet cards, according to the new guidelines.
Unsurprisingly, these rules have attracted criticism from civil liberties advocates and criminal defense attorneys: Christopher Dunn, an associate legal director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, was quoted by the NYDN as saying “police work on the Internet is ripe for abuse.” For example, per Facebook’s user agreement members of the general public aren’t allowed to use false names on the social network; under the Handschu Guidelines adopted in 1971, this may mean that police can’t use aliases either. The situation is ambiguous, however, as Facebook does in fact allow people to identify themselves with aliases -- as long as they are registered with their real names.
The NYPD has been using social media to investigate criminal activity for several years at least. In August 2011 the NYDN reported that assistant commissioner Kevin O'Connor would head up a newly-created social media division, which is part of the juvenile justice unit and monitors social media on the lookout for information about misbehavior ranging from out-of-control house parties to gang battles, with an eye to preventing mayhem before it starts. O'Connor previously made a name for himself with online policing efforts including stings targeting sexual predators on social media and helping apprehend murderers based on their online boasting.
And there are already success stories. The NYPD apprehended of six youths who murdered an 18-year-old gay man, Anthony Coallo, at a party in Queens in March 2011, after one of the assailants, Calvin Pietri, bragged about the crime on Facebook. The NYPD has also apprehended murder suspects by tracing an online feud, in one case, and checking the list of invitees on a Twitter invitation to a party, in another -- both of which transpired before the crime.
More spectacularly, in January of this year the NYPD busted the “Wavegang” and “Hoodstarz,” two gangs in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, for a series of shootings that killed three and injured more. Social media played a key role in nabbing 43 gang members from both gangs, according to Kelly, who said police investigators “followed gang members on Twitter, on Facebook and on YouTube. By linking their boastings and postings on social media to active cases and other crime, these officers were able to build this case.”