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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Gangs' Use of Social Media and Privacy Expectations

Jamie Bartlett at the Telegraph writes about the increasing use of social media by gangs and gang members, and how police investigators are increasingly using information from social media websites to investigate and prosecute gang members.  Bartlett comments on whether the information that authorities are able to access is private information:

Of course, it’s all open and public – otherwise rivals wouldn’t see it and you’d get no kudos. Criminals want to boast and show off as much as, probably more than, the rest of us. But they aren’t the only ones watching. At Scotland Yard, YouTube has become an incredibly valuable resource to allow specialists to piece together gang networks, monitor activity, and collect incriminating evidence. Evidence from social media led to the downfall of all our narcissistic crooks showcased above. As far back as 2009, Strathclyde Police launched Operation Access, which used social networking sites such as Facebook to uncover criminal activity by identifying weapons carriers.
The article goes on to discuss the legal implications of police officers' monitoring of social media websites.  While Bartlett is writing from a British perspective, the concerns about balancing privacy concerns against law enforcement interests is a familiar tension in American law as well.

In the social media / gang context that Bartlett discusses, I think that privacy concerns carry less weight than they do in other instances of government surveillance over internet activity.  For instance, police monitoring of one's emails to and from other people seems to be a greater intrusion on privacy expectations than police monitoring of what one broadcasts on social media to one's "friends" or to the entire world.  I would see no problem with police obtaining evidence from movies posted to YouTube, since these movies could be viewed by anybody in the world.

Gangs in particular raise additional concerns in the social media context because social media may be used as a tool for recruitment and inter-gang provocation -- not simply for the communication and expression that would be typical of a normal social media account.  While there are many legal issues of police surveillance of social media that need to be explored in the meantime, it would be interesting to see if courts would conclude that police could monitor gang members, gang websites, or gang social media accounts with fewer restrictions than if they wanted to monitor a non-gang individual or business.  Because social media may enhance the criminality of gang communications rather than simply accommodating communications, courts may give greater weight to law enforcement interests when contemplating the constitutionality of police monitoring of these communications.

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