Privacy concerns routinely transcend political stripe, which is why characters like former Army specialist Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, WikiLeak-er Julian Assange and Guardian scribe Glenn Greenwald have achieved mythical status. After all, in hopes of helping the average citizen understand and avoid complex, government sleuthing protocols and corporate data mining, they’ve sacrificed their own personal liberty, safety and sanity.
Yet, as Manning serves out 35 years at Leavenworth, Snowden and Assange wait in foreign embassies for a reprieve, and Greenwald plays hide-and-seek with an alphabet soup’s worth of intelligence gathering agencies, law enforcement officials in the United States are learning that to catch a thief – or an international drug dealer, gang member, or would-be terrorist – they no longer need to negotiate terms with a phone company, seek search warrants from a friendly judge, or hope for secret sanction from an extrajudicial proceeding. Often, all they have to do is open a social media account.
“If someone were to tell me you get one tool to investigate crime right now — including phone taps or law enforcement databases — I’d pick Facebook every time,” says an undercover narcotics agent based in the Twin Cities. “I’m amazed how many times Facebook has broken a case for me. In fact, over the past two years, I can’t think of a case when I didn’t use social media. People take pictures of their stolen vehicles and of their criminal associates. Gang members flash gang signs. Guys on probation or parole who are prohibited from possessing a gun pose with them. They want to brag about the things they’re doing and they’ve done, so they do it online.”
Over the past few years, the mainstream media has occasionally reported on this fledgling investigative phenomenon, most often in tandem with stories about the rise in street gang activity and gun violence in Chicago. Local news stories in that city, along with feature pieces in papers such as the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and magazines like Wired report that social media posts are the new graffiti for both well-established gangs and loosely affiliated criminal groups looking to mark territory, attract recruits or declare their intentions.
One compelling example of digital braggadocio is the evolution of Drill Rap, a grass-roots form of classic Gangster Rap that, born in Chicago, is recorded in-the-moment on camera phones and uploaded to YouTube by amateurs in search of notoriety. Often found on websites such as WorldStarHipHop.com and StreetGangs.com (sites that also feature commentary about the lack of justice in the penal system), the videos, according to Forrest Stuart, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, can generate millions of views — and engender almost as many bad feelings.
“Social media comes about in this process in a lot of different ways,” Stuart explained on the Chicago Public TV station, WTTW, in late June. “One way is just to amplify the classic way that gang violence has unfolded. And that is: I want to taunt you, I want to insult you, I want to somehow drag your name through the dirt in the street. And at one point, before digital social media, we had to be in the same place to do this. The only people who really saw it were the people on the block when I came and insulted you. Now I can insult you in various ways, and I can upload that to social media, and I can get millions and millions of hits. So now the audience is huge, and it really increases the incentive for me to retaliate. It increases the probability that I’m going to take offense to the kinds of things you’re doing on social media.”
Police in Chicago have become so beleaguered by the spike in shootings this year (1,177 before Memorial Day weekend) that they have begun to talk openly about the need to both better understand the impact of social media and — sometimes using aliases on platforms from Facebook to Instagram, Snapchat to Twitter — more closely monitor rivalries, anticipate potential confrontations and look for clues.
In Minneapolis, authorities are more circumspect. Outgoing Minneapolis Police Department spokesperson John Elder had no comment on the subject. And while Kyle Loven, chief division council at the Minneapolis division of the FBI, allows that federal investigators “are mindful of the role of social media,” he’s careful not to use the term monitoring and “in the context of gang activity,” says he’s “not certain that social media has played a huge role in the Twin Cities.”
In late May, however, both KMSP FOX 9 and City Pages reported that Minneapolis officers used footage from an amateur rap video posted online to help bring charges against four alleged gang members for making threats and carrying unlicensed guns. FOX 9 also reported that social media footage was being used in another ongoing murder investigation.
“I don’t know exactly what [the MPD] is doing about the kids who are flashing guns online or calling out other kids or ending up in fights, but I do know they’re aware of the issue,” says V.J. Smith, CEO and president of the Minneapolis Chapter of MAD DADS, an organization that works with at-risk street kids. “But I do think it’s important law enforcement get involved and get their hands around it. It’s getting out of hand and people are getting hurt, people are getting hit in the head, people are going to get killed.”
Higher ups in the MPD are known to be tight-lipped about investigative techniques. In this case, rightly or wrongly, the circumspection makes sense on a couple of fronts: The legal terrain around the use of social media as evidence is relatively young. Issues of digital privacy and government snooping are of particular interest to activists. And, perhaps most important, many people still don’t think much about privacy settings or who their friends are (or aren’t) when using social media. So the less publicity there is about those vulnerabilities, especially in the context of policing, the easier they are to exploit.
“Forget about The Wire. That’s old hat. Phone taps are onerous and, mostly, a waste of time these day,” says a Minneapolis police officer speaking on the condition of anonymity. “I mean, say I’m coming into a case and just heard about a person, but have no legal grounds for getting into them. I don’t know what they drive. I don’t know what hours they keep. I don’t even know what they look like. But if I see that they’re friends with other people who I know have been put away, I figure I must be on the right path.
“There’s no special training, specifically. Not yet. It’s just more part of your regular investigative procedure. You just learn as you go. And there are certain people that are better at it than others.”
David Schimke is a Minneapolis-based journalist and former editor at City Pages and of Utne Reader magazine.