Progress in technology is occurring faster than ever before in human history. The wealth of information now at our fingertips makes things possible that were unthinkable even a few short years ago. One of these is an interesting new development in law enforcement tactics. The use of digital data, stored on sites like Facebook, or GPS tracking data harvested from your smartphone is being utilized by law enforcement to both track and convict criminals of crime. Utilizing technology as a tool for law enforcement is not a new concept, nor is its effectiveness in dispute. The use of such tactics is not without controversy however, and privacy advocates are expressing concern as to the morality and legality of using someone’s personal webpage against them.

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In January of this year, The U.S. Supreme Court for the first time limited police power to track people using GPS devices, setting a general standard for the privacy rights Americans should expect from a new generation of wireless electronics. From now on, law enforcement officers can expect that using GPS information to track and build evidence against a suspect will be scrutinized carefully if it is done without a warrant. Probable cause will need to be established. Essentially, the court ruled that the 4th amendment does extend to electronic surveillance of this kind. However, the divergent opinions expressed by the court leaves in doubt just exactly where the line will be drawn as to what will constitute an invasion worthy of 4th amendment protection. That line will need to be defined by future litigation, but what is already clear is that the court recognized technology’s ability to peek into our personal lives in a way that is new and unprecedented. And the court ruled that the 4th amendment in certain situations can and should provide us some protection from these intrusions.

The use of Social Media sites like Facebook and Twitter by law enforcement is also coming under scrutiny. Following the London riots of last summer, the New York Police Department formed a special unit to monitor gang activity on social media sites, and found it to be an incredibly effective tool. Criminals often post things indicating everything from gang affiliation, to evidence of the commission of a crime. The FBI too, has adopted similar tactics, with similar success. This notable success in preventing crime has been both cheered as groundbreaking, and criticized as an improper invasion of privacy. It’s hard to argue that a criminal boasting of committing crimes on social media pages has much expectation of privacy, but what is unclear up to this point is just how police go about getting information from social media, and what the standard of conduct is or should be related to viewing and extracting information from a potentially personal webpage.

What is clear is that as technology grows ever more advanced, the balancing act between increased connectivity and expectation of privacy will be ever more difficult.

“Phone and Social Media Tech Now Being Utilized by Police: Effective New Tool in the Fight Against Crime, or Invasion of Personal Privacy?” was written by Matt Davis. Matt is a Victim Advisor at the Identity Theft Resource Center. We welcome you to post/reprint the above article, as written, giving credit to and linking back to the ITRC Blog.