West Virginia Law Enforcement Officials Receive Training in How to Track Criminal Suspects Through Their Online Activity

computer.jpegWest Virginia state officials are getting a crash course in how to spot criminals’ online activity. Indiana State Police Lieutenant Chuck Cohen, commander of Indiana’s special investigations and criminal intelligence section, will instruct West Virginia law enforcement officials at an event hosted by the National White Collar Crime Center in Raleigh County. Lieutenant Cohen has become adept at spotting cyber crime, money laundering, types of online fraud, online child trafficking and pornography, and more.

Lieutenant Cohen’s instruction will include the use of social media for criminal investigations, how to look at images that have cryptic data, and the world of hacking. Regarding social media, Lieutenant Cohen notes that these days, it is very common for a criminal suspect to have an online presence, especially a young one. For instance, many of those who rob banks have uploaded photos of the stolen money onto Facebook.

With regard to cryptic data in photos, Lieutenant Cohen states that these photos often contain longitudes and latitude locations. Finally, while the world of hackers has existed since the dawn of the Internet, hackers’ motives have evolved. Now a hacker might disrupt online services for political or other reasons.

Lieutenant Cohen stresses that because the suspect’s information is maintained by Internet Service Providers (ISPs), law enforcement officials can obtain warrants to search the online information. Federal law requires ISPs to maintain a user’s data for 90 days. Being able to search a user’s data through his or her ISP is useful when the criminal suspect may not even live in the same city, state, or even country as where the crime is happening. Yet a law enforcement official can still use the online data to locate the suspect’s whereabouts, usually through either the ISP information or the computer’s unique identification.

We at the Wolfe Law Firm understand that there are many serious crimes happening online all the time. In particular, identity theft is a great concern — where a criminal suspect may literally hack into your computer and steal your information, then pass it off as his or her own. However, law enforcement officials should exercise appropriate caution when seeking online data. While the boundary between public and private on the Internet is often murky, for most people, use of the Internet still carries an expectation of privacy. Even Facebook, a “public” forum, permits its users to restrict certain people’s access. Earlier this year, Facebook threatened to sue employers for requiring prospective employees to give them passwords to their accounts.

While law enforcement officials may think it worthwhile to search criminal suspects’ online user data, the question is how wide a search is justified. Even with a warrant, searching a suspect’s online data could constitute a far wider search than a typical search in a house. Law enforcement officials might be able to view all sorts of data unrelated to the crime that was never meant for third-party eyes. Even more concerning, ISPs and the computer’s unique identification do not always tell the full story. If a computer was stolen, the rightful owner might find himself or herself under suspicion even if he or she did nothing wrong. That is usually when the suspect turns to a West Virginia criminal defense attorney to defend his or her rights.