German police are increasingly using social media to fight crime by asking people to identify suspects on Facebook or urging witnesses to come forward. Data protection issues, however, remain a sticking point.
“Dear Facebook community, we have put out an urgent all-points bulletin on our page. Please help us by sharing it with others. Your police. ”
That’s how the Frankfurt police conduct manhunts on the social network Facebook. On display are phantom images and a description of the suspect. Users are asked for “relevant information,” and witnesses are urged to come forward. Those who can provide tips are instructed to call the police department or fill out an online form.
Facebook manhunts are creating unprecedented opportunities for criminal investigators. The networking website allows many more people to be reached compared with traditional media like newspapers, radio or television.
“The advantage is that users can disseminate content through Facebook very quickly by using the share-function,” said Siegfried Wilhelm of the Hesse state police department. “This viral spread of information is extremely successful.”
In fact, Facebook users already helped solve a murder in Frankfurt. A visitor was killed in a brawl with the bouncers in front of a club. The police published surveillance videos on the social network in order to identify witnesses. The recordings spread through the web community like wildfire, witnesses came forward and the perpetrators were apprehended.
The question remains: what happens if a suspect is proven innocent?
In another German state, Lower Saxony, the police started a similar type of public investigation as a pilot project last year. Eight crimes were solved. The Facebook page of the Hanover police department has over 100,000 fans. Their Facebook wall is a busy place: people are not only looking for criminals but also stolen horse trailers or the original owners of repossessed jewelry.
“Crime is relatively young”
German federal police statistics show that the number of young offenders participating in violent crimes is unusually high. This age group is also the most active group on Facebook: nearly 96 percent of people under 30 are members of at least one social network. On Facebook alone, 54 percent of German users are between 18 and 34 years old.
“Crime is relatively young,” said Alexander Seidl, an expert on Internet law at the University of Passau. “Investigators can address a target group whose age corresponds to that of the offenders. Thus, the probability that a user can recognize the perpetrators is particularly high.”
As one user aptly said in a forum: “Why should the police not use the same media as the crooks?”
But what about privacy?
Facebook may turn into an important investigative tool
According to Seidl, however, the fact that users can leave comments on each other’s entries brings risks in terms of data protection.
The police urge users not to use this function but, instead, to pass on their tips by telephone or mail. According to Seidl, if the user does not comply with this request, other people’s right to legal data protection could be affected.
Put concretely: If somebody posts the name and address of a person claiming that this “pig” is a child abuser, a large number of Facebook users will find out about it. It could then be impossible to stop the denouncers from trying to take revenge against a particular person.
That’s why police employees would have to constantly monitor their Facebook pages and delete unwanted, offensive and impertinent comments. Yet it can take hours before such comments disappear from the page. Before they do, they can sometimes cause considerable damage.
Facebook collects large quantities of data about its users
Privacy advocates are also concerned by very practical problems: No one knows if their data will truly disappear from the web. If someone is wrongly accused, the suspicion remains – at least on the web – forever. Facebook does not delete data; it only hides it. And it collects data on its servers in the US. Nobody outside the Facebook empire has any influence on what happens with the data once it is stored. The Lower Saxony police department had to come to terms with that. In response to a police inquiry, Facebook Germany provided the simple response that the company would not give up the practice of storing personal data in the US.
An unstoppable avalanche
Seidl argues that another big problem is created by the snowballing effect of the way information circulates on Facebook. According to a recent study, an average user has 133 Facebook friends. If only one of them shares the police page on his Wall, 133 people can see it, comment on it and, in turn, share it with 133 other users.
“When the police browse someone else’s Facebook profile and discover a comment that raises data protection issues, officers can only ask the user to delete that comment on his or her own,” Seidl said. The police, however, cannot do it themselves. While Facebook could intervene, this could happen only after a considerable time lag.
The Hesse state government doesn’t want to get involved in something like that. That’s why the state police turn off the commenting function from the outset. On their wanted-pages, there is only information about the alleged perpetrator and the police contact info.
Siegfried Wilhelm of Hesse’s police department, however, has observed that in the networked world, there are apparently not so many bad apples.
“Experiences of those who run fan pages have shown that dubious entries such as insults are actually quite rare, and that members of the community tend to correct this type of behavior themselves,” Wilhelm said.
But one user wrote in a discussion forum that one should not underestimate the dynamics that a manhunt gone viral can gain: “A mob can be incited quickly and then it’s bye-bye! This is like opening the door to lynching.”
Model for the future
At the moment, the police in several German states are exploring Facebook manhunts.
In Hanover, after the pilot project has been completed, the practice of hunting down the criminals via Facebook was discontinued: Wanted posters are no longer published on the Wall, but only a short notice that a bank robber, for instance, is being sought with a direct link to the police homepage. According to Dirk Hallmann from the Lower Saxony department, the advantage of this approach is that the data stays on police servers rather than those owned by Facebook.
The question remains as to why the police are using an Internet platform, which does not at all satisfy German data protection provisions.
“Everyone who works with Facebook knows about the dangers it entails,” Hallmann said. The user, however, is clearly referred to the Terms of Service on Facebook.
And how does the police present itself on the network full of party pictures, funny links, pithy one-liners and entertaining mini-games?
“Appropriately,” Hallmann said with a smile. “We have two highly motivated young colleagues who do it with a passion, but who also make sure that their slang does not become too loose so that people forget that they are interacting with an official
But the police force is willing to show a lighter side, as well. A recent post announced a job opening for a horse caretaker for the animals owned by the department – complete with a horse photo bearing a flashy caption. 440 people have liked it so far.