This article needs to be updated. Please help update this to reflect recent events or newly available information. (January 2020)

Social network services are increasingly being used in legal and criminal investigations. Information posted on sites such as Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook has been used by police and university officials to prosecute users of said sites. In some situations, content posted on Myspace has been used in court to determine an appropriate sentence based on a defendant's attitude.[1]

The U.S. DOT National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has made federal grants available to states to train law enforcement officers to use social media sites to identify events that may result in impaired driving or consumption by minors. As of 2012, Michigan spent over $4.5 million through this program, and has trained over 100 local police officers to use social media sites to identify and target events.[2] In more recent years, a majority of police departments have some sort of social media-based strategy in place.[3]

Social media can be used as an investigative tool to obtain probable cause for a search warrant. Agencies can surveil social media sites via software programs, such as X1 Social Discovery, MediaSonar, and Geofeedia.[4]

How police use social media

In 2015 the international Association of Chiefs of Police reported that about 94% of police agencies have some form of Facebook related strategy in place.[3] Among other things, this includes using Facebook to encourage a more positive perception of the police and monitor public gatherings. Social media is considered public space, therefore anything posted is considered public, unless you set your privacy settings to private, and don't accidentally accept friend requests from undercover police. This means that if you post something on Facebook or twitter, police have access to it and have the right to use and monitor it. Police may use tactics such as "Ghosting" where they create undercover profiles and friend requesting suspects in order to keep a closer eye on the daily lives of those suspects. This helps them know when large gatherings are going to occur and possibly increase police presence in that area to ensure public safety. these tactics provide police with otherwise unavailable information on key suspects and people of interest while taking up less time, money and resources.[3] In 2020, when asked police mentioned Facebook (And Facebook live), Instagram, Myspace, Periscope, Xbox Live with Friends, and YouTube. They would be on the lookout for planned gatherings or post flashing guns or weaponry as well as sudden escalation of violence.[3]

In addition to monitoring criminals, police can use social media to seek assistance from their communities. one such example is with missing persons or wanted suspects. In 2019, Police in Toronto, Ontario (Canada) posted on twitter seeking help locating four missing children. their post was shared over 300 times and the children were located and returned home.[5] Between the year 2017 and 2019, 373 posts were made by 15 police agencies in Canada. They used a technique called crowdsourcing to gather more information for their investigations and create interactive communities of citizens who are ready to participate and engage when communicated with.[5] They have a tendency to prefer Facebook and Twitter due to the ease of liking and sharing their posts.[5] Police also use social media to inform citizens of possible safety issues and take control of the media coverage of investigations. They share press releases, recorded interviews, mug shots and status updates on ongoing investigations. Their tendency to post before stories go public leads to a better control of the flow of information as well as journalist relying on police pages as quick and reliable resources.[6]


Facebook, a social network service, is increasingly being used by school administrations and law enforcement agencies as a source of evidence against student users. Allows users to create profile pages with personal details. In the early years of the site, these pages could be viewed by other registered users from the same college, including resident assistants, campus police, or others who signed up for the service. The user privileges and terms of service of the site have since been changed to allow users to control who has the ability to view their content.

Disciplinary actions against students based on information made available on Facebook has spurred debate over the legality and ethics of school administrators' harvesting such information. Facebook spokespeople have made clear that Facebook is a public forum and all information published on the site should be presumed available to the general public, school administrators included. Legal experts agree that public information sources such as Facebook can be legally used in criminal or other investigations.[7]

In the aftermath of the 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup riot, community participation in assisting police to identify the rioters has been described as unprecedented.[8] Police admitted to being overwhelmed by the amount of evidence provided by social media.[9]


Facebook and other social networking sites are being used to bring bullying outside of school. Students are being targeted on the internet and even mobile devices. A strategy to catch cyber-bullies is being implemented in Reading, Berkshire:

Alcohol policy violations

It has become increasingly common for colleges and universities to use Facebook to investigate underage drinking and violations of dry campus policies. Students who violate these policies may be discovered through photographs of illicit drinking behavior, membership in drinking-related groups, or party information posted on the Facebook website. Some examples of such investigations are listed below:

Investigation examples

See also


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