You probably use your Facebook account to get discounts or freebies from your favorite stores, to talk to your friends, or even to store some of your favorite photos and videos. But if you’re ever the victim of a crime, you may be surprised to learn that it may be able to assist in finding your perpetrator—or even coming to your rescue.
It sounds like something out of Black Mirror, but the social media platforms we use on a daily basishave tremendous advantages for investigators. The thing is, there are also downsides we need to consider before allowing this feature to dominate our lives.
How Social Media Solves Crimes
First, it’s important to recognize the key ways that social media and other online information help to solve crimes:
- Key information on locations and activities. Many apps and platforms keep track of your location, as well as activities you take on the app. Some, like Google Maps, even offer a direct visual to different locations around the world. On a small scale, this can help investigators narrow down the possible locations of a missing person, based on their last recorded location and what they were doing at that time. On an even bigger scale, images from Google Maps can be used to identify everything from potential crime scenes to the locations of nuclear arsenals. Once threats are identified, the military can deploy high-tech countermeasures.
- Confessions and admissions. If criminals aren’t especially careful about what they post to social media, it may be easy to find incriminating evidence. Someone documenting their assault, theft, or murder with a video or a verbal acknowledgment of the deed may be quickly reported and found by police.
- Facial recognition. One relatively new technology may be capable of using social media in combination with facial recognition to identify and track down perpetrators of crimes. If someone is caught on camera committing a robbery, for example, a fractional sample of their face may be cross-referenced with thousands of potential social media profiles, eventually narrowing the suspect pool down considerably.
- Crowdsourcing. Police organizations also issue requests for information to large groups of people in order to crowdsource part of the investigation. For example, if there was a murder or a hit-and-run at a specific intersection at a specific time, they may ask people who may have been in the area to come forward with anything they witnessed.
There are countless examples of crimes or mysteries that were solved thanks to social media. For example, there’s the Grateful Doe case, where an unidentified body with no identification was found in a car accident back in 1995. With no leads for two decades, facial reconstruction technology combined with widespread distribution on social media eventually led to the body being identified by the victim’s family.
Social media also helped solve the 1968 homicide of 4-year-old Carolee Ashby. Wide circulation of the story and a call for clues led to a chain of connections that eventually led to a woman in New York, who talked about being a passenger in the car in question.
It’s not just old crimes, either. In 2012, the sexual assault of a high school student in Ohio was investigated and prosecuted thanks to evidence found on Twitter, Instagram, and even YouTube.
Unfortunately, there are some downsides to this approach:
- Amateur investigators and false conclusions. When you crowdsource the investigation to amateur online sleuths, there’s a good chance you’ll wind up with more information. There’s also a non-negligible chance you’ll end up wrongly accusing someone, and potentially ruining their name—which is exactly what happened when Reddit collectively wrongly accused Sunil Tripathi of being responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013.
- Tracking victims. If you were to go missing, or if you were the victim of a crime, it could be helpful for police to be able to track your location. But what if you weren’t the victim of a crime? Everyone should be entitled to at least some privacy.
- Unfair trials. Social media-based evidence can also be problematic during trials. If someone is repeatedly (and unfoundedly) accused of being responsible for a crime, it may falsely color jury’s perceptions, and lead to an innocent person being convicted. Conversely, if a strong defense team is able to render information gathered via social media as inadmissible, it could lead to a “not guilty” verdict of someone who’s clearly committed a crime.
For the time being, it would seem the upsides of using social media as an investigative tool outweigh the potential negative consequences. But we need to watch how these technologies develop, and be mindful of our own privacy, carefully considering both the good and bad of each new leap forward in tech development. Otherwise, we’ll be on the fast track to a full-fledged dystopia.