Investigating Police Officers and Other Authority Figures

Computer and Digital Data Forensics

Social Media for Law Enforcement 

Hidden (Secret) Camera, Video, Microphone, Audio, Surveillance

People in authority sometimes abuse the public's trust.

But technology is progressively making abuse and conspiracies more difficult to execute. The reason is that technology renders corruption of authority un-hideable. Our world is becoming saturated with recording devices -- electronic mail, instant message, camera phones, Google-searchable web sites and more. These devices make innumerable records, which are subject to subpoena, e-discovery and data-mining.

The records are also subject to illegal access. For instance, a hacker broke into the Yahoo e-mail account of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and publicized the contents.

And no one person or group can control all the devices recording any given event. Cheating officials must bow to transparency.

MP3 Player Records Police Officer

Case in point: An NYPD detective got caught abusively interrogating a shooting suspect. The suspect recorded the conversation as electronic data on a hidden MP3 player. As the player quietly memorialized the conversation, the detective said "Our conversation right now does not exist." Later, in court he denied he had interrogated the suspect. But then the suspect produced the recording. The detective now faces 12 counts of perjury!

Mobile Phone Calling Records

Another case: Prosecutors and police officers in Pennsylvania were shocked to learn that the defense lawyers in a criminal case could, by way of subpoena, obtain access to their cell-phone calling records without their knowledge. Pennsylvania rules of criminal procedure allow for such a subpoena, but do not require notification to cell phone customers.

This Has Been Happening Since 1991!

Since the Rodney King beating in 1991 (illegal LAPD beating of suspect recorded on amateur videotape, corroborated by police e-mail), we've known that technology can surprisingly record and reveal instances of official abuse. But technology's march is accelerating. The sheer quantity of recording devices (PCs, cameras, cell phones, texting devices and so on) in day-to-day life is mushrooming.

Powerful Law Firm Learns It Is Weak

The transparency wrought by technology does more to the rich and the powerful than just expose their transgressions. It exposes any information about them that might be embarassing or unseamly. Hence, when big law firm Jones Day sued a Chicago web site for identifying where its partners were purchasing homes, the firm just made itself look silly. And by attracting additional attention to the location of its partners' residences, the firm's lawsuit achieved the opposite of its goal.

No authority, whether a police officer, the president or a prestigious law firm can hide from the burgeoning swarm of digital witnesses and stool pigeons.

"Documented Lives"

As Bill Gates predicted in his 1995 book The Road Ahead, we have come to live "documented lives." Increasingly, our every action and utterance is preserved in a record (i.e., discoverable electronic evidence), and therefore is potentially subject to third-party review and scrutiny. Even deleted records are recoverable by computer forensics.

Threat to Privacy?

Some folks view these developments as a threat to privacy. I view them as an agent of democracy and social justice, which compels people in power to perform ethically and responsibly. It compels rich people to pay their taxes. It advances the notion of checks and balances embodied in the US constitution.

Update: The transparency wrought by technology enforces responsibility on all accountable people, even welfare recipients who are expected honestly to report their household status. Under New Zealand law, welfare recipient Lauren Kaney was entitled to more money if she (a mother) was the sole adult in her household, and she represented to authorities that she was. But the government discovered on her Bebo and Facebook pages that she was co-habitating with the father of her young son. The public administration authorities convicted her for welfare fraud.

Another Update:  Tax authorities are turning to social networking sites to gather evidence for audit and enforcement.  Minnesota tax collectors went after the wages of a tax evader after he said on Myspace that he was returning to the state to work for a real estate brokerage that he identified.  Laura Saunders, "Is 'Friending' in Your Future? Better Pay Your Taxes First," Wall Street Journal, Aug. 27, 2009.

Update June 2010: Some police assert that wiretap and eavesdropping laws prevent citizens from video recording on-duty police officers. Some police say they can order a citizen who is recording the police action to turn a camera off, even in a public space. In some cases courts and other authorities have agreed with the police.


Mr. Wright teaches the law of data security and investigations at the SANS Institute.

"Documented Lives" Update 2013:  With each passing day, more of our daily activity is recorded ("documented" as Bill Gates said), so that it can be subject to review later by a third party.  Hence, a teenager in Texas makes a violent joke while playing an online video game.  He even states that he is just kidding.  But a woman in Canada sees the joke; the joke endures as a record.  She reports the joke to police, who investigate.  Teenager goes to jail.  Wow.  The world did not work like this in the 20th Century.

See related article on how to make smart phone video more credible.