Social media posts, cellphone data aid law enforcement investigations into riots

Law enforcement officials seeking out participants of the riot at the Capitol last week have one big leg up: a plethora of social media posts and data of the suspects they’re searching for. 

Widespread posts on social media from last week’s deadly riot, along with other less public-facing technology such as cellphone metadata, are aiding officials as they seek to identify members of the pro-Trump mob that stormed the Capitol building on Jan. 6.   

The Department of Justice has already charged dozens of people associated with the riots just over one week after the event took place. Law enforcement experts say that social media has not only helped track these individuals but also provided ample evidence for prosecutors to build airtight cases.  

“A treasure trove of rich evidence was created and released by the insurgents themselves,” Adam Wandt, deputy chair for academic technology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told The Hill.  

Social media sites were flooded with images and video clips of the mob that stormed the Capitol. On the day, Tweets and Facebook posts appeared to show rioters flagrantly breaking laws — carrying firearms into the Capitol, breaking into lawmakers’ offices and in one case stealing Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) lectern. 

And despite coronavirus restrictions in place requiring face coverings, the crowd was largely maskless, which will help law enforcement agencies using facial recognition technology.

“We normally don’t see in the modern day world — with video cameras and security cameras everywhere — we normally don’t see people who are committing multiple felonies at once so willing to show their face,” Wandt said.  

“For some reason the insurgents at the Capitol felt very comfortable and almost justified in their actions in that they advertised freely who they were,” he added. 

In less than two weeks since the riot, officials have charged close to 70 people in federal court related to crimes committed at the Capitol on Jan. 6, according to the Justice Department

Technology experts say that the public posts on a wide array of tech platforms will raise challenges for individuals to defend themselves against the charges. 

Darrell West, senior fellow at the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, said many people involved in the riot have made public confessions — even if they were unaware.  

“People who took selfies inside the U.S. Capitol could be convicted of trespassing or illegal entry,” West said.  

Adam Johnson, for example, was identified in a photo taking Pelosi’s lectern in the Capitol on the day of the riot. Johnson, wearing a Trump hat, is seen appearing to wave in the widely shared photo snapped of him in the federal building. He has been charged with knowingly entering a restricted building, theft of government property, and violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds. 

Asked about the photo, Dan Eckhart, the attorney representing Johnson, told reporters“I don’t know how else to explain that. That would be a problem. I’m not a magician.”

Richard Barnett, one of the first individuals charged from the riot, is accused of unlawfully entering Pelosi’s office and stealing public property as well as violent and disorderly conduct. Prosecutors said Barnett had left a note in Pelosi’s office.  

Barnett publicly bragged about the very actions he was later charged with, telling The New York Times, “I wrote her a nasty note, put my feet up on her desk.”

In addition to the photos flooding social media platforms, many sites had posts ahead of the riot where participants mused about a potentially violent event and organized the storming of the Capitol. 

“Perry Mason would be jealous of the amount of digital evidence that is present in this case,” West said. “People have left posts all over social media and through emails and texts messages, so prosecutors are going to have a field day.”  

Most of the charges resulting from the riot so far are misdemeanors and low-level felonies. But as officials scan posts on social media and look at text messages and other communications, it could lead to more serious charges such as conspiracy and seditious conspiracy charges, Wandt noted.  

“They’re going to leave no stone unturned, and they’re going to be putting together very tight indictments on individuals,” he said. 

Mainstream social media platforms, which have cracked down on content spreading conspiracy theories after the riot, have indicated they will cooperate with law enforcement during the investigations.  

A spokesperson for Facebook said the company is continuing “ongoing, proactive outreach” to law enforcement. A spokesperson for Twitter said the company is working closely with law enforcement and federal government partners to mitigate potential risks and expediting law enforcement requests that are in line with the platform’s guidelines.  

Lawmakers are also looking to wireless providers to share data related to the Capitol riots to aid in the investigations.  

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the likely incoming chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote letters to tech giants and mobile carriers urging them to preserve content and associated metadata connected to the attack at the Capitol.  

A spokesperson for AT&T said, “We have received and are reviewing the senator’s letter” but declined to comment as to the action the carrier has taken in providing information to law enforcement officials. T-Mobile confirmed it received the letter and will cooperate fully with requests from law enforcement.

A spokespeople for Verizon, which also received a letter from Warner, did not respond to a request for comment. 

“I think the suspects don’t realize the amount of information that is out there because with geolocation devices, you can pinpoint location,” West said. “A lot of the things they are doing are time-stamped down to the minute and second, so law enforcement is going to know what they were doing, where they were doing it and when they were doing it.”

In addition to social media and wireless data, the use of facial recognition technology has also aided in law enforcement’s search for the Capitol rioters. The controversial facial recognition company Clearview AI has seen a spike in use. 

Clearview CEO Hoan Ton-That confirmed in a statement that the company saw a 26 percent spike in usage on Jan. 7. The company’s spike was first reported by the Times.

Traditional facial recognition tools used by law enforcement depend on databases of government-provided photos, but Clearview has a database of more than 3 billion photos collected from social media platforms.  

As officials use the prevalent online information to ramp up investigations of the riot, it also draws further attention to the amount of personal information available digitally.  

“People are going to be surprised how much online information there is about everyone,” West said. “In this case, this information is being compiled because people are suspects in criminal cases, but everyone else should be aware there’s a lot of information on everyone.”

Tags Capitol riot facial recognition federal prosecutors Law enforcement Mark Warner Nancy Pelosi Social media Surveillance Technology
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