Is all internet activity subject to scrutiny for criminal prosecution?
February 13, 2023 8:22 PM   Subscribe

I was wondering if the average forum site such as this, or even a personal accounting software used just in a home office, could and would potentially be used as evidence for crime prosecution? (I'll elaborate)

So I work in the public sector and we are always on the lookout for hackers and forms of identity theft. Since it's never known to the public where those breaches end up I wonder if law enforcement periodically scans each and every electronic communication for signs or linkage to any crimes they may be investigating.
posted by The_imp_inimpossible to Computers & Internet (10 answers total)
Think about the volume of "each and every electronic communication" and ask yourself how law enforcement (also: which branch? Which jurisdiction?) would, even periodically, scan all of them. You're talking about multiple billions of posts from a myriad of sites and services every single day; the amount of human labor it would take to scan them all, even only from a single day, is...almost incomprehensible.

I would imagine that things are done on an exception/flag basis; if you post something that trips a flag somewhere, at that point, a deeper dive is probably done into your specific online activity and presence, and maybe that of people you interact with as well.

Setting aside the labor challenges of a manual search like that, there's also the legal aspect; in the US, law enforcement can't conduct a search if they aren't searching for something specific. In other words, they can't fish. They need to have a reason to be looking and a thing to be looking for. "I should check to see did they do crimes yesterday" is not enough of a reason online, any more than it is in the offline world.

Now: if someone DID do a crime yesterday, and an investigation of that person's activities discovers that that same someone posted here or anywhere about it, or about anything really, it is reasonable to think this site might be searched/subpoenaed/made discoverable to find out more. But without evidence of a crime - either alleged or charged - nobody's just randomly harvesting data from MeFi to use for maybe potentially taking legal action in case they find something.

(I'm also in the public sector and I deal with stuff like this on a not-infrequent basis)
posted by pdb at 8:58 PM on February 13 [2 favorites]

NSA does, and they can respond to an LE subpoena.
posted by j_curiouser at 9:00 PM on February 13 [4 favorites]

Evidence in a prosecution where a crime has already been committed? Absolutely. That’s routine.

Trolling the web looking for evidence of crimes? Limited cases, to my understanding, and for extremely serious crimes.
posted by Miko at 9:06 PM on February 13 [2 favorites]

It's reasonable to believe that common public forums are routinely scanned for Law Enforcement purposes. Specifically people hunting terrorists have made a big deal about their online monitoring for suspicious activity. On a local level police have used people's social media to spot when a crime has been committed (although in those cases I suspect they're just monitoring the Usual Suspects in their jurisdiction).

In the case of private information (like email or home accounting software) warrants are required. Once those are in play if there is an ongoing investigation LE is empowered to place eavesdropping software on your actual phone/computer/etc. and record everything you do.


[RE the NSA: Having implemented Lawful Intercept (eavesdropping) on various bits of network equipment I can tell you that the logistics of scanning every bit of internet traffic would be horrendous, in particular because the internet has no central place that traffic goes through. *However* a lot of traffic does transit AT&Ts backbone and their cooperation with the NSA is well known. If in doubt, which is pretty much always, assume big brother is watching.]
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:11 PM on February 13 [5 favorites]

Police Depts do have officers monitor chat rooms posing as young women trying to set up meetings with pedophiles.

I believe there is monitoring of websites related to "bad groups" like militias, Nazis, gangs, etc to identify leaders and uncover planned activities.

Most of these activities require some person, possibly a fictional person, to join. Completely covert monitoring is difficult if the admin of the group is into internet security.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:19 AM on February 14 [1 favorite]

. NSA has supposedly stopped monitoring domestic email and web traffic; they do monitor email and web traffic that originates or ends at a non-US site. Phone calls, too I think. Most scanning is done by computers, not individuals.
. Public chat rooms can be visited by law enforcement or anybody who wants to.
. If there is sufficient documentation for a search warrant, your phone can be tapped, and other electronic communication, including texts, may be monitored. With email encryption standard, I don't know if they can read all of it, same if you use a VPN. Google and other email providers must comply with search warrants.
. I'd assume that Usenet/ newsgroups are scanned.
. I use gmail; it scans all of my email to identify spam. Something like 90% of all email sent is spam, much of it is so obvious, spammy, fraudulent, toxic, virus-laden, commercial, etc., that it is not delivered. I get a lot of email, and about 10 emails a day end up in my spam folder.

In my experience, most police departments are not at all capable of responding to Internet crimes. People get hacked by stalkers, credit cards get abused, there's a ton of tax return fraud, etc. They have way more crime presented to them than they can manage.
posted by theora55 at 10:41 AM on February 14 [1 favorite]

My local police department often makes it clear they cannot possibly monitor all channels that locals post to, and to get in touch with them directly if they see something on Facebook or NextDoor or wherever that would concern them.
posted by Miko at 11:01 AM on February 14 [2 favorites]

To answer your top question, yes. Anything anyone does on a computing device could theoretically be used as evidence in a criminal proceeding. Any big tech company has a department and specialized tooling to deal with LE requests, so in practice a smaller site like metafilter wouldn't usually be the cops' first stop if they're looking for evidence. But could it come up, absolutely.

Are LEOs trolling the internet for new crimes? Not generally, but sometimes automated tooling exists to find and report illegal content, most obvious instance being child pornography detection.
posted by potrzebie at 2:31 PM on February 14

LE doesn't need to do it themselves; they can tell AT&T, Google, Facebook, et al to do it for them. It's safe to assume that all of your Internet traffic is being monitored and monetized, and that LE can paw through it if they want to.
posted by katmai at 4:14 PM on February 14

So in a former life I helped run a drug discussion/harm reduction forum. We had very strict rules about offering to buy or sell drugs, even ones that were legal in the person's jurisdiction. So strict that users couldn't even post prices for drugs, because if someone said they were getting a drug for cheap it might imply they were a dealer.

We had, to my certain knowledge, users who worked for law enforcement. And other LE monitored the site.

Looking at it from the other side: I'd be amazed if anyone was regularly looking at a site like MeFi. You'd have to trawl through so much content. Like, pick a word like "shoot" or "killing" or "attack" and search the site, there are thousands of comments, all totally innocuous. Even if you found something problematic, you'd have to tie a username to a specific location. Like e.g. if I made threats against "the mayor": which mayor? Where do I live? Which LE has jurisdiction? Am I even serious?

What might happen though is if a particular username is identified as being a person of interest, LE might look for that username on other sites. Or investigating a specific individual for a specific crime, look for evidence online that would support the investigation.

On the other hand: local FB groups or Reddit subs for protest organisations? Yeah, quite possibly. Alt-right Telegram channels? Sure.

In terms of technology: there are plenty of vendors selling to LE (and govt and corporate) for monitoring social media, forums, dark web, etc for crime, cyber and other risks, public sentiment etc. None of the ones I've seen are as good as they want you to think they are, they require a fair bit of configuration, and even then you need a human to manually review your results. And they'll have gaps (like you can only track tweets by location if the user has turned location on).
posted by Pink Frost at 7:34 PM on February 16

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