Business Technology

Wednesday 23 August 2017

Gardaí struggling to cope with massive increase in social media complaints

Force's computer system can't access popular sites

Gardaí are dealing with a huge upsurge in complaints that involve social media - but say investigating is problematic (stock photo)
Gardaí are dealing with a huge upsurge in complaints that involve social media - but say investigating is problematic (stock photo)
Cathal McMahon

Cathal McMahon

Gardaí say they are inundated with complaints relating to social media and claim they are getting very little help from their own management or the internet companies.

Officers in regular units say anything up to 20pc of cases referred to them involve some element of social media and claim "unnecessary obstacles" are being put in their way.

Gardaí also revealed:

- There has been a huge increase in reports of harassment and bullying online;

- Teenage girls and boys are regularly being questioned over the production and sharing of child pornography images;

- The Garda computer system Pulse does not permit access to social network sites like Facebook, making it difficult to investigate cases;

- The process for obtaining data from internet companies is "complicated" and "slow".

This week the Irish Independent/Independent.ie spoke to six gardaí of different ranks from across the country about their experiences with social media and the role it plays in their job. One garda also agreed to write a first-person piece about their experiences. All the members, who are not known to each other, reported experiencing many of the same issues.

Each had experienced a steady increase in reports relating to social media harassment. Asked how many cases that come across their desk involve some element of social media, officers said it could be "anything up to 20pc".

One sergeant, based in Dublin, explained how the sharing of underage images by teenagers, in particular, is creating a massive headache for gardaí.

"Sending a sexual image of a child is technically child porn and it doesn't matter even if it is a joke. If this image is sent to numerous kids then each one needs to be searched. It is impractical to do that with kids."

A garda based in Leinster said youngsters who took images of themselves were often also subjected to investigation. "These youngsters have technically produced child pornography. It is a very messy situation and there are no guidelines for how we deal with this."

Another officer, based in Munster, has also dealt with reports of youngsters creating false pages for the purposes of bullying. "We had this young girl recently, no older than 13, who had created fake pages on Facebook and she was telling another girl to 'go off and cut yourself with a rusty blade'."

Menacing

Gardaí have also investigated cases where a relationship breaks down and one partner sends menacing messages online.

All of the gardaí highlighted the fact the Garda Pulse computer system does not allow them to access social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. A garda based in the north-west said: "All the social media sites are completely blocked at station level as well as many others."

One officer, based in the mid-west, asks complainants to bring in copies or screenshots of the complaints but she would still need to see evidence that it has appeared on social media.

"A lot of guards would have to get it sent to their private WhatsApp or email. The problem with this is that your phone or laptop can become part of the chain of evidence."

Officers said they received no training in dealing with social media complaints. One said younger members are often "landed with" the investigations because senior officers "don't fully understand" social networks.

A spokesperson for the Garda press office said: "If the alleged crime involved the use of social media, procedures are in place and specialist units are available to assist Garda members in the investigation of these complaints."

Gardaí say that while they have some reports in relation to other social networks, the vast majority refer to Facebook.

All the gardaí we spoke to said they had, at one time, attempted to secure information from Facebook for the purposes of an investigation. And each reported that it was a long and drawn-out process.

A spokesperson for Facebook said it worked within the "SPOC [Single Point of Contact] system" which makes communication with police forces "straightforward and fast".

It received a total of 74 'legal process' requests between July and December 2016 and five 'emergency requests'.

"We work with law enforcement where appropriate and to the extent required by law to ensure the safety of the people who use Facebook. However, we only disclose information about our users if it's required by court orders or other requests (including criminal and civil matters)."

Irish Independent

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