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Two decades ago, we were wowed by the ability to press a few keys on the keyboard, push “send”, and within a millisecond reach out to someone  More amazing was the discovery one could access scores of information on any topic from countless sources. The Internet has opened numerous windows allowing easy access to knowledge, public information and processing power, more so than at any time in our history. The explosion of Internet social networking sites such as; Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, and Twitter has changed the way in which we communicate, build relationships, and share information. When I first heard of Facebook, back in mid-2007, there was exponential interest and popularity as people understood the connective power of creating a Facebook page. Currently, ‘virtually’ everyone has joined Facebook, perform daily tweet or for the business savvy, have joined “LinkedIn”. It has become part of everyday life. Friends make plans for social activities, post pictures and real time updates about their activities.   As example; courtesy texts are sent to loved ones to inform of a delay, opinions are shared on a topic happening in real time, photos and videos are shared within seconds of being taken, flash mobs are formed all of which illustrate the power of the internet.

As we all know every great idea comes with associated risk. This opulent form of information sharing and communication equally has the potential to reduce privacy and societal confidentiality norms once taken for granted. This privacy reform is beneficial in a generation that is computer savvy and nomadic in nature, providing instant contact with family and friends who live in a world seemingly without borders. Creating a profile on social sites (business or individual) involves disclosure of private information. Many sites give you the option to reveal or hide your private details, but heightened levels of screening opposes the whole principle of social networking interactions and makes it difficult for the people you want to find you. The unscrupulous seize on these opportunistic conditions.  Currently such social networking has made rampant, the enterprise of identity theft and fraudulent activity.

From a criminal perspective, accessing personal information and photos on social networking sites can depend greatly on the cyber integrity of the site being utilized and, to some degree, an element of naivety in people who don’t take issue with sharing large amounts of personal information online. Regardless of the cyber security measures in place, there will always be those who will attempt to hack into networks to manipulate and steal personal information. Organized criminals are extremely adept at targeting social or business networking sites.  The crimes then perpetrated by these criminals include, but are not limited to; identity theft, financial and credit fraud, property theft and fraud, and even the most heinous of physical offences, stalking, cyber bullying and sometimes may even drive people to consider or worse to commit suicide.

Private investigators also recognize the advantages of online technology and social networking. It can provide a wealth of information to help locate individuals, colleagues, friends, and associates, trace assets and learn an individual’s lifestyle and social habits. Furthermore, networking information is becoming a beneficial resource in defending civil litigation claims. As example; a statement made during an examination for discovery which claims an accident victim cannot participate in various activities, and no longer enjoys life to the fullest since the accident, can sometimes be challenged based on information and photos posted online. With an estimated 350 million Facebook users worldwide, combined with Google’s incorporation of various Facebook data in their search engines, the potential for data-mining opportunities seeking personal information has increased.

It takes considerable experience to conduct effective and discreet data-mining investigations through Internet and Social Networks. This specialized discipline, called open source intelligence (OSINT), involves acquiring information from publicly available resources and analyzing it to produce actionable intelligence. The term “open" refers to overt and publicly available sources of information; as opposed to covert or confidential sources of information.

One investigator revealed that “most of the time, personal information and photographs on sites like Facebook, can be accessed because people don’t always “know what they are doing” and have poor security or exercise poor judgment”. Noteworthy to the Facebook user, even with increased security to your own page, it is not just about what you do, but also about what your friends and family do. They might post information or show pictures that include you...and that is now absolutely out of your span of control.

If you are conducting asset tracing then one would use Land Registry records, which is OSINT. If you are trying to prove family connections between people, then one would use records of births, deaths & marriages, which is OSINT. There are literally hundreds of useful websites to find just about anything one can think of on any individual and such information is potentially vital to an investigator. It offers crucial bits of intelligence to uncover criminal activity in civil cases and helps give a greater understanding of the subject. We no longer have to make visits to a local registry office as now, such details are online. We are no longer restricted to just making local enquiries; now you can access the world with the click of a button.

The concept of OSINT being used as a valuable form of intelligence is still new and evolving. Questions have been raised whether or not OSINT, from social networking sites, might be considered a breach of PIPEDA. Recently, the Courts have tended to support the disclosure of information posted on these sites. A Superior Court of Ontario decision in 2009 (Leduc v. Roman, 2009 Can LII 6838 (ON SC)) ruled that some selected information profiled on Facebook was admissible.

“With respect, I do not regard the defendant’s request as a fishing expedition. Mr. Leduc exercised control over a social networking and information site to which he allowed designated “friends” access. It is reasonable to infer that his social networking site likely contains some content relevant to the issue of how Mr. Leduc has been able to lead his life since the accident.” Appealing Judge D. M. Brown.

Other Court rulings have suggested that an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy is not justified when dozens of photos and personal information are posted on a website, notwithstanding the fact that individuals have to be invited to view the content. In other words, a social networking entry is not a private diary.

Obtaining social networking information is dubious when security options executed by the registrant are penetrated. Posing as a friend or “back-dooring” the site through the manipulation of an associate’s Facebook entry has legal and ethical implications. Securing such evidence would likely be deemed inadmissible in any future criminal or civil proceedings. Legal remedies can be attempted through a court order, forcing the disclosure of social networking accounts which could be very beneficial to insurance companies defending civil litigation claims, as example.

Most private investigators still go out to interview people and follow individuals of interest on foot or in a car. The Internet and OSINT has enabled private investigators, just like journalists and police officers, to have a greater knowledge of an area or a subject before stepping out the door.