Saturday 18 November 2017

Teenagers sending explicit photos and neighbours playing out petty squabbles now a reality of policing

'This is the new norm and gardaí are dangerously far behind in tackling it'

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In this piece a serving garda member describes the daily struggles he has with social media investigations

Standing in front of me are a concerned mother and father accompanied by their teenage daughter. Just days earlier the minor had sent sexually explicit pictures of herself to her underage boyfriend.

This lad, for whatever reason, has decided to forward these to his friends in school.

Now the furious parents want the now ex-boyfriend and his friends prosecuted.

In the eyes of the law these young lads have certainly committed an offence, but what this family is about to learn is that so has their daughter. She’s actually produced and distributed child pornography.

In another case, a relationship between a couple has broken down and one person is not happy.

That person then continuously tries to message their ex-partner via social media.

The partner who is the subject of the messaging arrives at a garda station to make a complaint. This will often land with a guard at the counter in the public office of the station. That guard can have anything from a few weeks to 30 years’ service.

It is also a common occurrence now to have neighbours engaging in petty squabbles and bad mouthing one another on Facebook to try to get one up on the other person with mutual friends and neighbours. On occasion, this then escalates to incidents of physical violence or criminal damage to property.

It’s just the reality of modern policing. This is the new norm and gardaí are dangerously far behind in tackling it.

It is impossible to definitively say but my best guess is that about 15pc to 20pc of the cases reported to gardaí, on a normal uniform policing unit in Dublin, would involve some element of social media.

Our job is difficult enough already and companies like Facebook are not helping to make it any easier.

 

So how do we investigate? The first thing we must do when faced with a case like one of those outlined above is to identify and examine the evidence. The first problem for almost all gardaí though is that the current computer system set-up does not allow normal officers access to Facebook or, indeed, any other social media sites.

This means that members very often resort to using their own phones or laptops to gather information or progress investigations. Some complainants will bring in printouts of the allegations but we still need to confirm their accuracy.

If gardaí use their own devices, then you risk having to hand these over as part of the investigations. The age range and backgrounds of gardaí conducting these investigations vary widely, and as such you can have some gardaí competent in technology and computers and others for whom it’s a complete maze.

There has been no training to upskill or advice on how to even go about this. Continuous professional development classes were stopped as part of the recession and there is no continuous updating or refreshing of knowledge of those conducting investigations.

In order to secure data posted to social media and maintain the chain of evidence, we would need to get the data from the mostly US companies behind these sites, but this is so long-winded.

To explain, we have to write affidavits and then the Director of Public Prosecutions and Chief State Solicitors Office outline in a legal document what the offences are; it is 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.

In the meantime, more new cases build up and it is hard to move them on because it’s a never-ending crippling cycle, juggling the ball without dropping it.

You can get the information from the social network when it is an open and shut case but if it’s a fishing expedition there is no point as you need to be specific on what you require and the legal basis for it.

The delays are not only there. It can take anything up to five years to get a computer examined by the computer crime unit in Dublin, such is the amount of work on its desk.

When you think the members of my unit have a couple of hundred active cases at the moment, and between 15pc and 20pc of these involve some element of social media, and there are almost 13,000 gardaí in the country… well, you do the maths.

I don’t know what the quick fix for this problem would be. I do think that more training on social media and how to actually conduct investigations where social media is an element would be invaluable. At the moment we are somewhat blind. And then we also need Garda numbers. We’d easily be able to double the strength of units and still have work for everyone. It would enable us to complete better, more detailed investigations.

And finally, we need more help and support from the social networks. Our job is difficult enough already and companies like Facebook are not helping to make it any easier.

Online Editors

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