Thursday 20 June 2019

Gardaí dealing with avalanche of social media complaints claim 'unnecessary obstacles' put in the way by management and web firms

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;
  • Regular gardaí get no specific training in the job for social media complaints;
  • The process for obtaining data from internet companies is “complicated” and “slow”.

This week 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 of the members, who are not known to each other, reported experiencing many of the same issues.

Increase in reports:

Each of the garda members said they 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 20 per cent”.

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. There could be dozens of children who receive these.”

A garda, based in Leinster, explained that young girls or boys who take images of themselves are often also subject 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, said he has also dealt with reports of youngsters creating false pages for the purposes of bullying.

“We had this young girl recently, she was 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’.

“This was obviously very upsetting for the families involved. They are just children at the end of the day so what we would generally do is bring in the families separately and get the phones removed.

“We would try to use restorative justice in these cases.”

Gardaí say they have also investigated cases where a relationship breaks down between a couple and one of the partners is unhappy and sends menacing messages online.

Another trend gardaí have noticed is abuse that starts online often turns into real-world crime with irate web users causing physical violence to others or criminal damage to property.

Investigating the crimes

All of the gardaí interviewed highlighted the fact that the garda Pulse computer system does not allow them access social media sites like Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.

A garda, based in the north west explained: “The Garda investigating has no official access to these sites. All the social media sites are completely blocked at station level as well as many others.

“The fact the average investigating Garda cannot access content of complaint as a matter of course is just another unnecessary obstacle.”

A garda, based in Leinster, said: “The most shocking part of these investigations is we can't access the sites from Pulse machines. They’re all blocked, you couldn’t make this up.”

One officer, based in the mid west said she 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. There is no forward thinking here.”

Officers said they received no training in dealing with social media complaints.

One garda said there were no specific courses that he was aware of and said often younger members are “landed with” the investigations because senior officers “don’t fully understand” social networks.

“There has been no training to upskill or advice on how to even go about this. Continuous Professional Development (CPD) classes were stopped as part of the recession and there is no continuous updating or refreshing of knowledge of those conducting investigations.”

Gardai say that the massive backlog in the garda Cyber Crime Unit also means that investigations are delayed and some cases have been dropped.

Last year the Irish Independent reported that a shortage of trained staff and investigative technology had created a backlog of up to six years in garda inquiries into computer crime and child abuse.

The gardai we spoke to said these delays persist and there is very little they can do.

A spokesperson for the garda press office said: “All incidents of a criminal nature reported to gardaí are fully investigated. 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.”

Dealing with Facebook:

Gardaí say that while they have some reports in relation to other social media 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.

One garda explained the process: “We have to write affidavits and then the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) & Chief State Solicitors Office outlines in a legal document what the offences are, they are then sent to the local district attorney where the head office of these social networks are located and they go to court for us to get the order to preserve the information if they are satisfied with the supporting documentation.

This then has to be renewed every 90 days on a rolling basis. Very often you get some headway on an investigation and then you have to send off for this and the whole thing is parked as it’s a long drawn out process.”

A Dublin garda said he had the same problems: “Facebook generally look for warrants which are difficult to get because of the nature of the allegations. We have successfully prosecuted some cases but they are rare.

“Overall these cases are hard to investigate because Facebook put a lot of barriers in the way to protect their information.”

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

It said that it received a total of 74 ‘legal process’ requests between July and December 2016 and five ‘emergency requests’.

“As a responsible company we work with law enforcement where appropriate and to the extent required by law to ensure the safety of the people who use Facebook,” the representative said. “However, we only disclose information about our users if it’s required by court orders or other requests (including criminal and civil matters).

“We also respect local laws, and when governments bring illegal content to our attention, we will make it unavailable in that country.”

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