Last week, USAToday.com ran a story about the use of social media to investigate the Vancouver riots:
Vancouver police say they cannot keep up with the unprecedented number of tips and photos of people who torched cars, looted businesses and pounded on officers in a riot following the Canucks loss to Boston in the Stanley Cup finals….
Police use of social media is exploding, and the Vancouver riot illustrates both unique opportunities and challenges for investigators.
Todd was quoted as saying, “Law enforcement has to go where the people are, and the fact is, the people are online. The crime scene has expanded. It’s no longer just the physical world, but it’s that Internet cloud. There’s actionable information out there.”
What if the information is inauthentic?
Another article posted the previous day, however, notes:
Social media have, in some ways, been a blessing for riot investigators, providing evidence that otherwise might never have seen the light of day. But it could also prove to be a curse, with police confirming they’re aware that images could be digitally altered, and social-media experts predicting the “That picture was photoshopped!” defence will be popular.
The article goes on to note that some of the “photoshopping” is obvious; other instances, less so. The onus is on police to sift through the images to determine what is real, and what isn’t:
Constable Jana McGuinness, a Vancouver police spokeswoman, wouldn’t confirm how many doctored images police have received, but said investigators are aware of the possibility of fraud.
“We have experts assisting the investigation that will validate the authenticity of all photographs and images that will be entered as evidence in future court proceedings,” she wrote in a statement.
Photoshopped images are nothing new. More recent cases have been tried in which defendants had photoshopped the faces of children to make them appear to be engaged in sex, or gone even further in manipulating images of women to make them look like young girls.
As the Globe and Mail article notes, image metadata can help investigators authenticate the image, including creation and modification date/time stamps. However, sites like Facebook strip the metadata. Investigators should therefore take pains to document both images and metadata, including their own observations about images’ appearance. As in Vancouver, they should also have access to digital video experts.
What does this mean for actual investigations?
The evidence may not fit the original crime, but in some cases, it can lead to new charges, or lead to civil litigation. Interfering with a police investigation may be one charge leveled against those who actually alter the images (assuming the photo can be traced back to a source). Consider cyber-bullying cases, in which children have created false profiles, complete with fake pictures, to get their peers in trouble.
On the civil side, defamation suits might result from individuals falsely represented as having been involved in a crime or other illicit activity. Corporate espionage, intellectual property violations or even extramarital affairs can be falsified.
The more people become accustomed to using the internet and all it has to offer, the easier it will be for those with the wrong intentions to exploit the various tools. This complicates online investigations, but not insurmountably so.
What wrinkles have you encountered in your online investigations, and how have you dealt with them?
Image: oskarsson photography via Flickr