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

Source: The Hill | January 16, 2021 | Rebecca Klar

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 provided ample evidence for prosecutors to build air-tight 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 Pelosis’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 M. West, senior fellow at the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings Institute, 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.”


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