When criminals tweet, police pay attention

As the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case has illustrated, today's detectives have a tool that previous generations couldn't have imagined: social media.

Traditionally, evidence such as DNA, fingerprints and eyewitness accounts were what helped convict defendants in criminal cases. If the police were lucky, perhaps there'd be grainy surveillance video or a credit card trail. But as the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case has illustrated, today's detectives have a new tool in their arsenal: social media.

The Steubenville case drew national attention after a blogger named Alexandria Goddard got wind of the case, heard rumors of a cover-up and started screen-capping Tweets from both the alleged perpetrators and witnesses to the rape. Soon the investigating officers had nude photos of the incapacitated girl, videos of boys laughing about the rape and incriminating text messages from at least one of the two suspects, both of whom were convicted on Sunday.

The Steubenville case might be the most high-profile instance of social media being used to help make a criminal case, but it's far from an isolated event. In 2011, 17-year-old Calvin Pietri was arrested after he bragged about taking part in an anti-gay murder on his Facebook wall, authorities said. That was the same year the IRS caught up with Rashia Wilson, who proclaimed on Facebook that she was the “first lady of tax refund fraud," according to authorities. On Monday, alleged members of a New York City drug gang called the "Fetti Boys" were rounded up after posting videos on YouTube depicting the cartoon-emblazoned bags of marijuana and crack they were selling, authorities said

In fact, New York has so many of these online braggarts that in 2011, the NYPD set up a special social media unit to monitor these sites. Civil libertarians, however, worry that this kind of surveillance could lead to ethical violations. Christopher Dunn, associate legal director for the New York Civil Liberties Union said, "Police infiltration of social media should be closely regulated."

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Not every police department uses social media for surveillance. Kentucky police officers just post "most wanted" pictures on their Facebook wall and watch the tips roll in.

According to the Guardian, social media-related crime reports were up 780 percent over the past four years in the U.K. Chief constable Andy Trotter of the Association of Chief Police Officers told the paper,"It is a new world for all and we could end up in a situation where each constabulary needs a dedicated Twitter squad."

And that may not be so farfetched. A 2012 survey of 1,200 federal, state and local law enforcement professionals revealed that 67 percent of the officers polled "believe social media helps solve crimes more quickly," and that "87% of the time, search warrants utilizing social media to establish probable cause hold up in court when challenged."

As for Steubenville, the trial may have ended but Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine announced on Sunday that after his cybercrimes experts analyze "396,270 text messages; 308,586 photos/pictures; 940 video clips; 3,188 phone calls; and 16,422 contacts listed in phones," he will be convening a grand jury to determine whether more crimes have been committed and whether more charges should be filed.

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