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. 


  1. For any professional, enterprise or government agency, information technology changes the risk equation associated with legal compliance. Meatpacker Westland/Hallmark discovered this lesson the hard way. Its adversaries (animal rights activists) secretly video recorded its handling of diseased cattle in its slaughterhouse. Web broadcast of the sensational video triggered a government-forced recall of 143 million pounds of beef. The recall delivers a harsh economic blow to the company.

    In the old days, before it was so easy to record and distribute video, animal rights advocates had to work harder and spend more money to prove that a meatpacker was violating food safety regulations. But today animal rights groups have become a serious new supplement to USDA meat inspectors.

    Big picture observation about the modern age: every responsible citizen must be more careful about adhering to laws and regulations. Otherwise, a vigilante may record the violation and publicize it.

  2. "But I think technology is progressively making conspiracies more difficult to execute. The reason is that technology renders abuse of authority un-hideable. Our world is becoming saturated with recording devices. And no one person or group can control all the devices recording any given event."

    Maybe. But technology is in the hands of abusers, too. And when it's government intelligence doing the abusing, often they have at their disposal better technology than us common folk do. Remember this story from last fall about tiny "insect drones"?

    Less high-tech was the photoshopped picture of John Kerry at a Jane Fonda rally (or maybe it was Jane Fonda at a John Kerry rally) that circulated around the last election.

    I think what technology is doing is breeding a nation of skeptics who don't trust anything they see or hear. And that's the most dangerous of all, because that means people are being led by emotions, not information--the most easily manipulated and deceived group of people there are.

  3. One more thing that may interest you:

    Whistle-blower site taken offline

    A controversial website that allows whistle-blowers to anonymously post government and corporate documents has been taken offline in the US., as it is known, was cut off from the internet following a California court ruling, the site says.

  4. The Wall Street Journal reports that tax evaders using tradtional tax havens like Liechtenstein are at greater risk than they used to be. Leichtenstein banks are subject to strict privacy laws that protect taxpayers who use the banks to evade taxes in countries like Germany. So German tax dodgers thought they were safe in Liechtenstein. . . . But technology is changing the world. An employee at a Leichtensetin bank stole customer data. And instead of using it to commit identity theft, he offered it for sale to tax authorities around the world, including the German tax authority. The Germans accepted the offer. The German government paid 4.2 million euros for the (stolen!) data. The data have triggered tax investigations against hundreds of German tax dodgers. The biggest fish caught in this German dragnet so far is the head of Deutsche Post AG, a major company.

    For anyone violating any law anywhere, the world is becoming less safe. In the old days a tax dodger thought Liechtenstein could protect him. But today, an employee can steal the tax dodger's data from a Liechtenstein bank and easily (thanks to modern communication technology) put it up for sale to all tax authorities in the world.

    Note that the former bank employee who stole the customer data is believed to reside in Australia, which at least temporarily makes it difficult for Liechtenstein authorities to catch up with him (though eventually they may). But with the Internet, the telephone system and FedEx, he has no problem negotiating with his "customers" -- the tax authorities of the world.

    "Stolen Data Spur Tax Probes," Wall Street Journal, Feb. 19, 2008, p. A4.