What happens on social media doesn't just stay on social media

During Get Safe Online week, one of our undercover experts in investigating online crime - writing under the alias of ‘DC John Johnson’ – blogs about social media and how Facebook comments could lead to a visit to the police station and having all your gadgets seized...

There’s a comments section below - there always is. But everyone needs to think carefully about what they write there. Your next comment could be the one that’s being read back to you, in court, by a police officer.

Is it still funny?

Facebook is not Vegas. What happens on social media does not just stay on social media. Want some examples? Well how about this statistic. According to figures released by the Ministry of Justice this May, five people are convicted every day for something they said online.

Not accused. Not arrested. Convicted. The figures also show that nearly two people a day just received a caution. Well, I say ‘just’. A caution is something that is disclosable to your future employers, so if you want a decent job, you’ll have to tell them about the ‘one time you said something stupid on the internet and then got interviewed by the cops’. Strangely enough, most employers tend not to view that as a positive thing.

Let’s look again at that figure and ask what it means. If someone is investigated for an offence committed online, the police will have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that it was that person that said it. How do we do that?

There are a number of options, but I wouldn’t recommend them to anyone. First of all, the person will get a knock at the door. Then they’ll be arrested or invited to come to the station for an interview. Some people find the whole experience quite traumatic - the cells, the fingerprinting, the mug shots, “you do not have to say anything…”, the whole process of being ‘processed’. 

I’m used to it – it’s all standard procedure; but every now and again I deal with someone who’s just made a mistake, and the way they react at the process makes me see it with fresh eyes, and an involuntary shudder. The thing that will make you shudder is the way in which we prove that a person said it. 

Imagine a knock on the door, followed by someone removing the following items from your house:

·         All of the computers - desktop, laptop, Thinkpad

·         All tablets – iPads, Samsungs, Amazon Fire, even Kindles

·         Phone(s)

·         Games Consoles, Xbox, PS4

Any of these devices (and more - do you have a Smart TV?) could be used to connect to the internet and make a comment. What better way to prove who made the comment than to find the device that it was posted on in your house? But I’d suggest that what someone may care most about is the fact that we’ve just removed all of the shiny internet connected gadgets from their house to have them forensically examined.

That may take up to a year, because we’re quite thorough, and also very busy. If there’s anything on any of the devices someone would rather not have anyone else see, hard luck, because rest assured we’ll see it. If there’s anything on there that’s illegal, we’ll be speaking about that as well.

At this point, someone usually suggests the use of an alias or ’sock puppet’ account.  Guess what - we’re also remarkably good at finding out who you are, even if you don’t want us to. But that’s for another blog…

I’m aware of Freedom of Speech and the Human Rights Act, and Magna Carta. I’m also aware of the bits of the UK law that mean you can get into trouble for posting certain things online. Are you?

If not, here’s an overview of the law:

  • A person is guilty of an offence if they send, by means of a public electronic communications network, a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character. Read more
  • Any person who sends to another person a letter, electronic communication or article of any description which conveys a message which is indecent or grossly offensive, a threat or information which is false and known or believed to be false by the sender, or any article or electronic communication which is, in whole or part, of an indecent or grossly offensive nature is guilty of an offence if their purpose, or one of their purposes, in sending it is that it should cause distress or anxiety to the recipient or to any other person to whom he intends that it or its contents or nature should be communicated. Read more
  • Find out more about stalking and harassment online at cps.gov.uk/legal/s_to_u/stalking_and_harassment/
  • Find out more about online hate crime, and report it at report-it.org.uk/reporting_internet_hate_crime

So, before engaging in a bit of “banter” have a think about what you’re posting. Is it threatening or menacing? Is it likely to cause offence to an individual or a group of people? Because if the answer to any of those questions is yes, you might want to re-think it.

You can receive prison time for committing some of these offences – so on the plus side, if we take away your brand new iPhone 6S, your next upgrade might be iPhone 8.