Did you know that more than 70% of people in the United States have a presence on social media? That’s nearly 250 million people! Each day many of these people share details about their lives, whereabouts, likes, interests, and activities with friends, family, and acquaintances. For private investigators, this activity represents a massive trove of information that can help inform investigative activities.
But is it legal for private investigators to use social media?
In this post, we will answer this question, discuss ways to use social media in investigations, explore some common pitfalls, and then review some techniques for how Private Investigators can effectively use social media in their investigations.
Is it legal to use social media in investigations?
The short answer is yes, if the social media posts are public, however, “A reasonable expectation of privacy” is a foundational principle guiding what surveillance and investigative activities are allowed and which are not. For example, people have a reasonable expectation of privacy within their own homes and on private property. This is why Private Investigators cannot photograph people in these places. However, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in public places, such as at the store or the gym, and that opens the door to them being subject to surveillance activities.
So the question is: where does social media fit into this equation? In general, social media is considered a public platform, and the courts, again and again, have reaffirmed this in recent years. The photos you post, the comments you make, the captions you add to your images—all of these are considered public and you would not have any reasonable expectation of the remaining private. This means that, in general, social media is legal for private investigators to surveil.
That said, many social media platforms also have private components and privacy features that allow people to restrict who can access their information. Here is where things can get stickier, and an internet detective will need to be much more cautious and aware of the latest privacy laws and evidentiary processes and standards relating to its use in court.
Uses of social media in investigations
The elements of social media that are public and accessible have immense value for private investigators. Here are a few ways social media can assist you in your investigations:
- It can help you understand people. Someone’s social media tells you a lot about that person. You can get a sense of what type of person he or she is, what they value, how they think, and what they like to do in their spare time. These observations can be very valuable in informing your other investigative activities, such as surveillance or interviews.
- Social media can provide supplemental evidence for your case. Because people post so much about their lives on social media, it is not uncommon for these posts to include activities that may shed light on particular aspects of a case. These could be particularly useful in fraud cases, for example, where a photo of a person mountain biking could disprove their claim of having a medical condition preventing them from working.
- It can help establish an alibi. If a person of interest posted a picture of himself at a concert the night of the event that you’re investigating, that photo can help to establish that person’s whereabouts at a particular time and provide an alibi that would exempt him from further investigation.
- It can help connect the dots between people. Social media is all about connecting people. Sometimes this can be useful for establishing connections between persons of interest. For example, if a suspect denies knowing someone, but they are friends on Facebook and regularly post pictures together—then you can use this as evidence to disprove their claim.
Pitfalls when using social media in investigations
Social media private investigators can find immense value in social media surveillance, but they can also fall into some serious pitfalls if they’re not careful. For example:
- Private investigators cannot access information or data illegally. Internet detectives are not allowed to hack into devices, make any phishing attempts to deceptively gain access to social media accounts, or otherwise illegally access someone’s social media accounts. Always use the utmost care when accessing information and ensure that your approach and methods are above board.
- Social media posts and images can be easily manipulated. Just because someone sends you a screenshot of a social media post doesn’t mean it’s legitimate. It is very easy for an individual to modify a post right within a web browser or use a photo-editing tool to manipulate an image. Trust but verify!
- Things can be subject to misinterpretation. It can be easy to misinterpret what someone posts on social media. For example, someone could post a photo of them hiking on the anniversary of some significant trip they took. But without being this person’s friend or understanding the context, you may misinterpret this photo as being a current photo of them hiking. This could lead to incorrect assumptions and misleading evidence.
- It can waste your time. People post so much on social media that you can get lost for hours in someone’s photos, videos, and posts. If you’re not careful, you can waste a lot of time looking for something to help your case without gleaning any meaningful value for your investigation. Be focused on your activities on social media, and don’t get lost!
3 techniques for using social media
So, what are some tips and tricks for using social media effectively in your investigation? Here are three:
1. Use social media investigation software
There are a variety of social media investigation tools on the market that can greatly simplify and streamline your search activities. Rather than manually scrounging to find someone’s social media accounts and then scrolling endlessly through a person’s feeds, consider using one of these online services or tools to compile all the relevant information across all platforms and present it to you in an easily digestible way.
2. Trust but verify
As mentioned previously, social media is easily manipulatable, and it’s critical that you validate the evidence that you find. It’s often best to try to validate certain findings from multiple angles. For example, multiple photos from multiple people could help to establish a particular fact beyond a reasonable doubt.
3. Use social media in tandem with other investigative activities
Don’t be tempted to use social media to neglect other investigative tools. Social media is often a single piece in a much larger investigative puzzle that you still need to still put together by using other surveillance methods, conducting interviews, and doing additional research.
Looking to take your investigative skills to the next level? At NITA, we offer a variety of Private Investigator courses for people at every point of their Private Investigator journey—from those just starting out to seasoned private investigators looking to continue their education or maintain their certification.
You might also like: