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Becoming a Social Media Investigator: Do You Have What It Takes?

  • February 19, 2018
  • by Joseph Jones
  • Articles

Joseph Jones with Bosco Legal Services shares his unique insight into Social Media Investigations, and asks the question: do you have what it takes to be a Social Media Investigator?

Social Media Investigations - Do you have what it takes?


Usually, when someone finds out that I have a specialty in social media/ cyber investigations, the first thing they say is something along the lines of “my wife would be great at that because she spends all her time stalking people on social media”. Social Media Investigations (SMI) certainly have opened the door to a new breed of investigator (think more legally blonde than Magnum PI), but nonetheless, there is much more to it than meets the eye.

Largely because of our very unique expertise in SMI’s, our investigations department has grown by over 600% in the last 3 years. Besides having to learn SMI’s from the ground up myself, I’ve also had to learn how to train a lot of new SMI investigators and how to quickly ascertain if someone has the right skills, perspective, and personality to be a good SMI investigator. The purpose of this article will be to provide an outline for some of the biggest requirements to be a good SMI Investigator and to take a look at what this specialty entails.

Social Media Investigation Distinction

Before diving into all the ins and outs, it’s important to understand that for the purposes of this article, I’m drawing a clear distinction between a PI who produces a little bit of social media content to supplement an existing case and an actual Social Media Investigator/Open Source Intelligence Investigator. There are many database-driven services (such as Skopenow, Spokeo, and a whole bunch of others) that for a few bucks will locate probable accounts for your subject. One can then take a little time reviewing what’s out there and send it off to the client with a few notes on their observations. There’s certainly a market for that kind of work, and it can be a good add-on to a standard surveillance or background check, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking a real, full on, thorough (find out everything about an individual down to their favorite color and 3rd-grade teacher kind of thorough) online based investigation. In the same way that just running a database report isn’t a real skip trace, there is no way to conduct a real SMI using only automated systems or having only basic knowledge.

Investigator Traits

An SMI investigator, like all investigators, must be someone who can think outside the box and that has an inquisitive mind. Just as importantly, however; he/she must understand the various forms of social media, its lingo, and nuances. In the beginning, I spent far too much time trying to teach seasoned investigators the nuances of social media, but it just didn’t work. I found that understanding social media nuances is either something people have or they don’t, and it’s almost impossible to teach. Knowing how to navigate Facebook’s graph search is a great starting point, but is barely the tip of the iceberg. The use of computers and both navigating and understanding social media must be second nature.

Attention to detail is also of paramount importance because often the good evidence is often not right in front of you and requires a significant amount of digging to uncover. As an SMI investigator, you’re not just a worker bee following instructions from the client; you’re a team member advising the client what they need. You’re not only locating accounts, you’re reviewing content for evidentiary value, and making decisions about what is or is not relevant to the investigation.

Social Media Investigation Training

To be successful at SMI’s you have to be teachable, willing to learn, and you have to constantly be seeking out ways to increase your knowledge. If you don’t like constructive criticism and you think that you know everything you need to know, this field is not for you. There is always someone smarter and you have to be willing to learn and adapt quickly. What is most relevant today may not be relevant in the next 6 months. Snapchat for example: Not that long ago it was a platform primarily for exchanging illicit content, but has quickly hit the mainstream. Just last year I was involved in one of the first cases in the U.S. to successfully introduce and authenticate Snapchat content into a court case; now it affects a large majority of the cases that we work.

Things in the tech world change rapidly and unless you’re constantly learning and re-assessing your processes, you’ll become the Radio Shack of Investigations before you know what hit you. Some training (such as is offered by the McAfee Institute) offers certification courses which are a must, but for many of your trainings, you’ll receive no recognition. Much of your learning will need to be done on your own and will include tedious online research and the scouring of online forums. In addition, the value of attending various conferences such as OSMOSIS is invaluable and will help you keep up to date with the latest technologies and methodologies. When I started in the field, there were very few trainings available for SMI/OSINT investigators, whereas today there are numerous resources available for those looking to become well versed in this field.

Social Media Investigations Software

Some of the biggest hurdles to getting social media content admitted into court revolve around issues of establishing foundation, authentication, and chain of custody for the digital evidence. For the last several years, courts across the country have been excluding an increasing amount evidence for these reasons, and they have stated repeatedly that simple print screens or snapshots from social media sites are insufficient to produce as evidence.

To combat these challenges, you need to have a working knowledge of metadata and how to extract it. Metadata is computer code embedded into pretty much everything electronic, including social media posts and it must be extracted, analyzed, and produced along with the posts/pictures themselves. It contains the who, when, and where of electronic files, along with the digital fingerprint of the content. A recent federal court rule actually states that when metadata is presented along with content, it is “self-authenticating” and no longer requires an expert to certify it. To assist in this extraction and analysis you’ll need some specialized software such as X1 Social Discovery, Hunchly, or Camtasia. These software’s each have different strengths and weaknesses, but require a moderate to advanced understanding of computer programs and are not entirely user-friendly, but are an essential component to conducting these types of investigations.

Do you have what it takes to be a Social Media Investigator?

Becoming an SMI Investigator is not a simple or easy process, but can be quite rewarding. Having been in business since the 1980’s we’ve done all kinds of investigations, and the types of content now available through an SMI is a major game changer. Information we now get on a daily basis was unimaginable 10 years ago. Between research, training, certifications, software, and equipment over the last 5 years we have invested well over $100,000 into SMI’s; however it’s been a great investment for our company and it has opened many doors for other types of investigations as well. The only question now is do you have what it takes?

Joseph JonesJoseph Jones is a licensed Private Investigator and the Vice President of Bosco Legal Services, Inc. Joseph has worked in almost every position at Bosco, starting with sweeping the parking lots, and as such has an intimate knowledge of every facet of the business. Joseph is a Certified Social Media Intelligence Expert, Certified Expert in Cyber Investigations, and holds multiple certifications in Open Source and Cyber Intelligence. He also has degrees in Psychology and Social & Behavioral Sciences.

Joseph has received over 1,000 hours of specialized training and regularly teaches courses to attorneys, paralegals, insurance professionals, and contributes to their various publications. Joseph has appeared as an Expert Witness in legal cases on various topics. When he’s not tracking down bad guys or digging up the truth, he enjoys spending time with his beautiful wife and 4 active children.

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