Federal investigators in Boston earlier this year teamed up with Facebook officials to identify an alleged sexual predator in Myrtle Beach, an example of the growing use of Internet-based social networks as a tool for solving crimes.
Joseph Robert Smith of Myrtle Beach is being held at J. Reuben Long Detention Center on one felony charge of sexual exploitation of a minor in the first degree, which carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence. His arrest on Sept. 25 was the result of old-fashioned shoe leather detective work, government database searches and cooperation from the Facebook social network, which was able to identify Smith’s alleged victim – and ultimately Smith – from millions of photos uploaded to its site worldwide.
“In the past, we’d look at telephone records and email records,” said Dean Secor, an assistant U.S. Attorney in Charleston and coordinator of the agency’s Project Safe Child program in South Carolina. “Now, more and more, you’re seeing subpoenas for social media accounts. We’re utilizing information from social networks on practically any kind of case.”
Lt. David Knipes of the Myrtle Beach Police Department said that agency is among those across the country who are increasingly using social networking sites to catch criminals.
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“Absolutely, we would be missing out on a great source of information if we didn’t,” Knipes said.
LexisNexis last year conducted a poll of law enforcement agencies that showed four out of five respondents are using social media to assist in investigations, with local and federal agencies utilizing sites such as Facebook and YouTube the most to help catch criminals. Law enforcement is using social media to identify persons of interest and their associates, identify locations of criminal activity and as probable cause to obtain search warrants.
“Investigation and analysis of social media content provides a huge opportunity in terms of crime prevention and offender apprehension,” Samantha Gwinn, a spokeswoman for the LexisNexis information and risk management company, said in a statement.
The use of social networking in Smith’s arrest came to light last week when a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations filed a request in federal court for a search warrant to seize Smith’s email correspondence through accounts he has with Google and Hotmail.
An affidavit filed with the search warrant request shows Homeland Security in Boston was working on a separate case involving child pornography images they had retrieved from a computer hard drive seized in that city. The images had been deleted, but agents were able to retrieve them through forensic technology. The agents learned that some of the images retrieved from the hard drive contained file names that were consistent with the types of images uploaded to Facebook accounts.
Federal agents contacted Facebook, which has facial recognition software for its millions of users and was able to match the images retrieved from the hard drive to a female child “very similar in appearance to the child victim depicted in the series of child pornographic images,” according to the affidavit.
Facebook provided investigators with the name of the woman who had registered the Facebook account containing photos of the child resembling Smith’s alleged victim. The photos on that woman’s page were not explicit and the woman is not a suspect in the crime.
Agents used a nationwide database to track that woman to the Myrtle Beach area. Investigators then checked for male acquaintances of the Facebook account holder, eventually using South Carolina’s driver’s license database to identify Smith as a person “very similar in appearance to an individual who is able to be partially seen in two of the child pornographic images.
Officers raided Smith’s residence on the night of Sept. 24, seizing computer equipment and arresting Smith when he showed up at the house while the search was taking place.
Smith admitted to investigators that he had produced the pornographic images and shared them via email with individuals whom he met on a foreign-based image hosting website, according to the affidavit. Smith also identified two email addresses he controls and uses to trade child pornography, the document states.
Smith told investigators “that he would save child pornography from his email accounts onto his computer and delete the emails after a period of time, but said there should be some emails in the accounts that he has not deleted,” according to the affidavit. Smith also said he saved the email address of individuals with whom he traded child pornography in the email accounts, which could lead to further arrests.
Smith initially was released from jail on Sept. 26 on a $30,000 unsecured bond and under the condition that he wear a monitoring device. He was returned to custody on Oct. 4 after he lost his residence requirement for the electronic monitoring agreement.
“Under the terms of home detention and the electronic monitoring program, the defendant must have a listed residence within Horry County,” said Tom Fox, director of J. Reuben Long Detention Center. “Once he finds a residence to relocate to within Horry County, he will be placed back on home detention and released with electronic monitoring.”
Facebook spokesman Matt Steinfeld said the company typically does not share information about how it works with law enforcement agencies.
Facebook points out on its web site that it has “no special partnership” with law enforcement agencies and treats most police requests the same as those by private individuals. The social network makes an exception in cases where there is imminent harm to a child or the risk of death or serious injury to a person. In those cases, Facebook will comply with immediate disclosure of information, the network’s web site states. Facebook also reports all apparent instances of child exploitation appearing on its site to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Secor, the assistant U.S. attorney, said agents aren’t sitting in a room monitoring average citizens’ Facebook accounts.
“But if something pops up in a case where we find out a social network is involved, we’ll utilize whatever is legally available to us through a search warrant.”
Secor said he expects investigators will be utilizing social networks “more and more going forward,” but on a case-by-case basis as to whether such use can help solve or prosecute a case.
Gwinn, the LexisNexis spokeswoman, said she expects the use of social networks as a crime fighting tool will only increase as technology improves and more people utilize the sites.
“As law enforcement personnel continue to participate in formal training and gain an increased comfort level with the power and scope of social media, as well as its limitations, the value it provides will continue to rise,” she said.