This blog post contains non-graphic mentions of murder, kidnapping, and child abuse.
Detective work was already complex and multifaceted before the digital age and the presence of our own digital selves, and now that’s changing faster than ever. Much detective work today is still done around the area of the crime, searching for further leads on the ground. An important part of this is collaboration, and now investigators have access to virtually anybody’s advice or tips through the internet. What would have seen as a ‘small-town murder’ back before this digital age now becomes a viral phenomenon. Although this has both its upsides and downsides, I’ll be discussing ways in which the digital world can help ongoing investigations.
In today’s landscape, it becomes increasingly hard to simply disappear. In order to fully disappear you not only need to avoid leaving any physical traces, but you must also be able to disappear digitally. This means no credit card transactions, no social media, no phones that can be traced, nothing. Although the prospect of never truly being able to disappear may be terrifying to some, it certainly has its silver lining for investigators and amateur internet sleuths. You may have seen these types of posts before, where someone asks strangers online to identify something for them. Maybe it’s the piece of a car that came off during a hit and run, or maybe it’s the location of a photo someone posted before going missing. On a larger scale, Europol has launched a campaign on their site called Stop Child Abuse – Trace an Object, a grid of pictures of objects with an unidentifiable source taken from explicit content involving minors (I won’t link it since it’s rather heavy material even if nothing explicit is shown.)
These are ways in which law enforcement can gather more anonymous tips on investigations from a wider range of people. In the past, news of local crimes rarely reached beyond the local area even if the criminal themselves may have been involved far beyond the area. The advantage of the internet in this case is it is much easier to reach a wider audience.
Despite never having had any sort of police training, anyone with a bit of knowledge on the internet and a lot of time and patience on their hands can aid law enforcement in finding new leads. Nowadays plenty of archives online are open to the pubic, and virtually anyone can find someone’s old social media accounts to uncover incriminating evidence. Jane and John Does are sometimes made available to the public for such internet sleuths to try and connect the dots to bring them to justice.
Thanks to the internet, people can now choose to donate their talents to law enforcement. One of my favorite examples is the accountant turned forensic artist Carl Koppelman who assisted in identifying eight Jane and John Does so far. As he mentions himself, the advantage of internet sleuthing is it allows people to focus on older cases that may not be prioritized by law enforcement.
(Be warned, the video below contains graphic descriptions of murder)