Social media isn't just a place to post pictures and chat with friends. Many dumb criminals also use the websites and apps to brag about their crimes - remember that drug dealer who got caught because of his YouTube posts? Now, cops are getting wise to the game. That's why undercover officers are flooding popular networks with fake accounts to try and catch oversharing criminals in the act.
Social networks like Facebook and Instagram are a great place for cops to catch bad guys who can't resist posting their loot for friends to see. Even if their accounts are private, officers can still get the information they want without a warrant as long as they can convince the offender to accept their friend request.
Police in New Jersey used this tactic to gather evidence against serial thief Daniel Gatson by looking at his private Instagram account. Gatson challenged the officers' use of the undercover account in court, saying it violate his Fourth Amendment rights. But, a judge didn't agree.
Gatson posted all sorts of photos of money and other possibly stolen goods on his Instagram account. Officers with an undercover account saw it all. Gatson claimed the intrusion violated his rights against unreasonable search and seizure.
The judge in the case was unswayed, denying his request to suppress the evidence collected by the undercover Instagram account, ruling that police don’t need a warrant for “the consensual sharing of this type of information.”
While the judge ruled in favor of law enforcement, there is some concern that creating fake accounts violates use policies on these sites. Facebook requires users to use their real name. Instagram's rules aren't as cut and dry, but the photo-sharing network does require users to represent themselves accurately. In the past, the DEA has gotten into trouble with Facebook after creating an account under someone else's name.
As more and more law enforcement agencies make use of these techniques, social networks, courts and officers will have to work to find out a way to move forward without violating the law or user rights. No matter how it shakes out, I'm confident of one thing, dumb criminals will keep posting and our brave officers will continue to find ways to catch them.