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Social media becomes key tool for law enforcement
Cpl. Joe Britte uses a program that works with Facebook and allows police to share information with the public. Law enforcement uses social media in a variety of ways including monitoring criminal activity.

When a Flowery Branch student was suspected of leaving threatening comments Monday on an Instagram post, Hall County investigators were able to trace the post to the computer’s Internet provider address within hours.

As social media becomes increasingly widespread, law enforcement have begun to us it as a tool for both spreading information to the public and gathering information for investigations.

“We do utilize social media to receive and give information to the public, as far as from a law enforcement perspective,” Gainesville Police Department spokesman Cpl. Kevin Holbrook said. “If there’s a missing persons situation, or sending information out about runaways, social media helps immensely.”

In investigations, social media can provide instant information on people’s networks, interests and locations.

“Social media — it’s the norm now. Ten years ago, there was no such thing as social media or networking sites. So now, more so than ever, it’s important that we use social media sites to our advantage, as they typically do give us an abundance of information,” Holbrook said.

“Everyone puts everything about their lives on social media. So if we need to find out anything about an individual person, social media is typically a route that we can take.”

As with the Flowery Branch case, social media can provide physical clues as well.

A computer forensic investigator with the Hall County Sheriff’s Office, along with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, was able to track down the source of the Instagram threat through the IP address,
sheriff’s office spokesman Sgt. Kiley Sargent said.

As a result of the computer trail, investigators arrested Tiffani Torres, 18, on Tuesday and charged her with one count of disruption of a public school. She was booked into the Hall County Jail, where a $1,000 bond was set. A hearing is set for Feb. 13.

“There are cases where we can follow IP addresses, or we can follow cell signals to find a geographic location,” Holbrook said. “There are certain instances where an individual posts a picture, many times, and they don’t realize it, but that picture leaves a ‘geo code,’ and it will show where that picture was taken.”

Social media’s relationship with law enforcement cuts both ways, however; investigators can use social media to solve crimes, but sometimes people can unintentionally victimize themselves with it, Holbrook said.

“If you’re tweeting your location, or Foursquaring your location, that’s like telling burglars ‘I’m not in my home right now,” he said. “Uploading pictures of an expensive new TV is another way people open themselves up to being a victim.”

While some investigators focus full time on using social media, a fleeting reference to illegal activity on your Facebook page — while not smart — won’t necessarily lead to an investigation.

“There’s a large gray area there, as far as social media is looked at as an open forum,” Holbrook said. “Many things that individuals put up on social media are up for interpretation. If an individual does put something up on social media, there are many times when we do follow up on stuff like that. But we are not going to use large amounts of resources on something minor, because many times it comes down to interpretation.”

But, as Holbrook said, law enforcement will investigate tips and discoveries deemed worthy of follow-up.

“If someone sends us a tip, and we determine there to be a legitimate enough threat, we’ll investigate,” he said.

That means you may want to be careful before you post a suspicious message, even if it’s reserved for only your closest 800 or so “friends” on Facebook.

“Many times we do receive tips from citizens who monitor their friends on social media sites, and they do happen to notice items that may be suspicious in nature,” Holbrook said. “Those may be reactive or proactive. The individual may make comments that they possibly committed a crime, as far as reactive. As far as proactive, individuals may possibly be making threats, or maybe leading up to possibly committing crime.”

Private messages between people might also be brought to light for investigative purposes.

“We have used social media to bring evidence upon individuals that have made threats to other individuals using social media,” Holbrook said.

It comes down to being mindful of your Web presence, Holbrook said.

“What you post on the Internet, is in ink, not pencil,” he said.