Hamburg. In September 2010 a businessman was caught by a speed trap. According to his company, they had lent him a car but could not authenticate that he was actually the one who drove. Thus, an officer checked the businessman’s public facebook profile and immediately identified the suspect as the driver. This way the man got punished appropriately.
This is a true story. With more than 660 million user, facebook becomes more and more interesting for police, since they noticed that social networks are a tremendous tool in gathering information and identifying criminal activity. Especially in the United States police departments set up a facebook profile in order to check up on people but with a different aim…
During my research I came across that nice blog where Sara Inés Calderón briefly describes how police departments actually use facebook. In various small towns it’s used to inform citizens about current events, like school closures or even the weather. Moreover she describes that in Ohio residents can post questions on the “Wall”, which will be answered by police then. This shows that these departments really try to create a dialogue.
To give you a better idea take a look at the Kentucky State Police facebook page. At the moment they have about 32,400 fans. Like every police department which has a facebook profile they use the “Wall” to upload mug shots, to comment on community events, to inform citizen about crimes in the local area and to report about arrests. If an officer dies they post it, too. In this way people are invited to say goodbye. Generally speaking using facbook allows police departments to give information in an accessible way. By using “Polls” and “Discussions” they invite people to work with them, which simplifies police work sometimes.
But this wasn’t enough. I kept on researching, googled everything I could. Finally I found a Wikipedia article. Immediately I understood that police not only uses facebook to keep in touch with their fellow citizens but also to check up on them!
As you might know drinking under the age of 21 is forbidden in the U.S.. Nevertheless, teenagers get their alcohol either by using a faked ID card or by asking someone else above 21 to buy them the beer or whatever. Now the problem: What do some facebook users after a great party? Right, they upload pictures, where people look drunk. Consequently everyone can see them if the profile is accessible for everyone. This carelessness allowed police and universities with dry campus policies to find underage drinkers (especially in the past). To give you an example:
“In November 2005, four students at Northern Kentucky University were fined for posting pictures of a drinking party on Facebook. The pictures, taken in one of NKU’s dormitories, proved that the students were in violation of the university’s dry campus policy.”
As you can see, especially in the United States police departments use facebook. Therefore I wondered whether German police departments should do that, too, because Hannover’s police department momentarily has a facebook account for six month.
One question is, is a facebook account useful?
On the one hand, it obviously facilitates police work, since people are asked to identify suspects or to call police in case they were a witness. Moreover it is quite useful, because a lot of people check facebook almost everyday.
On the other hand I read that in Dallas and Chicago police departments have a facebook profile, too, but it’s not as successful and helpful as it was supposed to, since their webpage is to general and impersonal. This clearly shows that if police departments really want people to be active then they should also report about local events and give specific information.
The second question that arises is, should police use facebook in order to find criminals?
Actually, as long as you as a facebook user don’t change your privacy settings, so that everyone is able to read what you post or upload, it’s totally legal to use this information. Past has shown, some criminals were proud of what they had done and hence posted it, not thinking of the consequences. Thus it can be good to check on people.
Nevertheless Marit Hansen stresses that German police should be careful, ´cause there’s always a catch. She claims that facebook could find out that someone has been checked out by police regularly, which could hinder the entry in the U.S. because no one knows whether the person was checked because of speeding or because of terroristic activities…
Honestly, no one can complain about being checked by police or anyone else, because we all know that we uploaded most of the things voluntarily. Of course it’s annoying if you love to speed, like the man in the example above, and then you get caught because of your profile picture, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles.
Considering all facts, I would say that if police uses facebook appropriately it can be a useful tool to find any kind of criminals.