Can Social Media be the Key to an Investigation?


The Appalachian Institute of Digital Evidence is holding its 5th annual conference this week in Huntington and Charleston.

John Sammons is an Integrated Science Professor at Marshall. He’s also the Founder and President of the Appalachian Institute of Digital Evidence Conference. The four-day event took place Monday and Tuesday in Huntington at the Marshall University Forensic Science Center and concludes with sessions today and tomorrow in Charleston at the Capital Conference Center. Sammons said this is such an important event, because in the five years the conference has been held, things have changed dramatically in the field.

“It’s changing constantly and that’s one of the challenges of working in this field, things change all the time and some changes are subtle, let’s say a version of a software from one version to the next,” Sammons said. “And others are more radical such as all the NSA things that have come to light, those kinds of things cause sweeping issues across both disciplines and legally.”

This year’s conference is touching on everything from how first responders should treat digital evidence, to the use of social media in gathering evidence,  and the use of mobile phones as digital evidence. David Abruzzino is Director of the Open Source Intelligence Exchange at Fairmont State University. He said once anything is posted online it’s open to the public and investigators.

“I can take everything I know about a subject and I can put it in a blog, I can send it out as tweets, I can post it to Facebook and everyone else on the planet who has access to the internet can know what I know about that subject and if we can figure out how to leverage that access and leverage that information, it’s certainly going to improve things for all parties concerned,” Abruzzino said.

Abruzzino and a group of his students gave presentations this week on mining and finding information from Open Source sites.

“Open source in the context that we use it refers to any information that can be gathered through unclassified or non-secretive means, so it’s information that’s publicly available,” Abruzzino said. “It may be hard to find, but there is no one actively trying to keep you from obtaining it.”

Among those sites are social media sites which are heavily used in today’s world. Abruzzino says if law enforcement can learn the techniques, they stay ahead of the game.

“The technology is always changing, but the trade craft isn’t, so in terms of the tools we use, those may change day-to-day, but the basic skills that you need to successfully leverage that information, that doesn’t change,” Abruzzino said.

Sammons said many would be surprised the role that social media has played in past investigations in the region.

Sammons said most do not realize how easy it is to obtain information.  

“There is a phenomenal amount of information on consumers that are tracked without their knowledge and then from an investigative stand point, there is a tremendous amount of information to be mined as far as from a public safety perspective,” Sammons said.

The conference concludes tomorrow at the Capital Conference Center in Charleston.