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Social Media Crime: Are We Putting Ourselves in Danger?

by Jane Susskind, published

With one-seventh of the world's population on Facebook, it's safe to say that we are living in an age dominated by social media. Our online profiles are an extension of our offline presence, one in which we can control and manufacture our image as seen by the rest of the world.

What we might not realize, however, is how our self-glorifying selfies and humble brags threaten our safety offline. In the U.K, for example, criminal activity linked to Twitter and Facebook has increased 780 percent since 2008. Tweet stat: Tweet

“It is a new world for all and we could end up in a situation where each constabulary needs a dedicated Twitter squad,” Chief Constable Andy Trotter, of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said of the surge in cyber crime.

Due to its relative novelty, social media crime is not often addressed in the media. However, with the acceleration of social media use and rampant spread of personal information, cyber crime is here to stay.


Social Media Crime

The Risks of Checking In

The use of location-based social networks has become common practice when going out. Avid social media users check-in on Foursquare or Yelp, tag their friends on Facebook, and upload a picture on Instagram to document their lives.

Every time we check-in on a location-based network, we are alerting potential criminals that we are not home, opening up the possibility for theft, vandalism, and violence at your home. Tweet quote: Tweet

Furthermore, every time we upload a photo to Instagram or Facebook, our location is mapped on a "Photo Map." This not only reveals our current location, but documents trends and tendencies in our travel patterns.

Check-in options, status updates, and location-based networks publicize what was once private information, paving the way for online stalkers and criminals to plan the perfect crime. A journalist and editor at The Guardian outlines just how easy it is to digitally stalk someone using a location-based network:

"But equipped only with a smartphone and an increasingly popular social networking application called Foursquare, I have located her to within just a few square meters, accessed her Twitter account and conducted multiple cross-referenced Google searches using the personal details I have already managed to accrue about her from her online presence. In the short time it has taken me to walk to this pub in central London, I probably know more about her than if I'd spent an hour talking to her face-to-face."

This can have serious consequences because online activity can manifest into offline harassment. Crimes like harassment and stalking have always existed in society. Social media just makes it easier for them to occur. Tweet it: Tweet

What Constitutes A Social Media Crime

Social media opens up the floodgates to misinformation, messages of hate, and impersonation that is oftentimes uncontrollable. Explicitly outlined by Twitter, impersonation on the social network is a violation of its rules:

"Twitter accounts portraying another person in a confusing or deceptive manner may be permanently suspended under the Twitter Impersonation Policy.” 

Law enforcement agencies cite Twitter impersonations and the spread of false information as a contributing factor in nationwide panic and harmful to the criminal investigative process. As proven by the flurry of tweets that spread harmful information in the days following the Newtown shooting, misinformation on Twitter can lead to confusion in the wake of a tragedy.

In last week's search for former LAPD police officer Chris Dorner, false accounts of the search prompted the San Bernardino County District Attorney's Office to tweet, "The sheriff has asked all members of the press to stop tweeting immediately. It is hindering officer safety."

Although the tweet was removed minutes later, Ben Wizner of the ACLU Speech, Privacy, & Technology Project argues that our first amendment right to free speech should extend into our interactions online. Responding to the threat of legal recourse for those posting false information about the Newtown shooting, he said:

"There's a tendency (among law enforcement) to overreact to new technology. But the legal issues are the same," he said. "I can understand why law enforcement would be upset about the spread of false information. But that doesn't make it criminal." Tweet quote: Tweet

The lack of legal precedent and difficulties involved with applying current law to the digital realm makes dealing with the recent surge of criminal activity online a challenge.

While lawmakers across the country have introduced legislation regarding online harassment and online impersonation, there is still a long way to go in the fight against cyber crime. For now, be careful what you tweet.

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