online intelligence, online investigations, online privacy issues, Facebook, LinkedIn, social networking, social search, big data

How to Use Social Media for Online Investigations

“The online world is just like the offline world in many respects: Your friends can inform on you to police, and detectives can go undercover to catch you in the act.”—Heather Kelly, Writer/Producer, Technology at CNN

Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other social media websites contain large quantities of data. This is where searches tend to bring up the most accurate and up-to-date information.

Users should familiarize themselves with the advanced search features that are accessible on some of the larger social networks.


Facebook has the most extensive social search on the Internet, and allows people to make queries based on over 40 different dimensions. It combines the big data that’s compiled on its one billion users, so it’s often an ideal place to start an investigation.

The search criteria on Facebook covers basic information such as name, gender, and birth date.

It also allows searching by dimensions related to work and education, such as employer location, position, and concentration.

Likes and interests are also searchable and range from things the subject of the investigation Likes and whom they are following to groups they administer and apps they use.

If users know the name of anyone the subject has a relationship with, such as friends and family members, they are able to use that information in their search. For example, users can search based on the name of the subject’s spouse, cousin, children, siblings or parents.

In the past, users were able to prevent their profile from coming up in searches by adjusting their privacy settings, but this capability is no longer available. Facebook recently announced that users would not be able to hide their profile from coming up in search results.

Users that currently have that privacy setting will get a notification that they will no longer have this feature available to them. This means that investigators will soon be able to search all profiles.


LinkedIn could be a viable second choice depending on the information that’s known about a subject, and it can be used to cross-reference information found on Facebook.

Certain search criteria is available to everyone on LinkedIn to search, such as current location and company, industry, past companies and school.

Those that have upgraded to a premium account can search using additional criteria, such as groups joined, interests, and company size.

LinkedIn allows members to see who’s viewed their profile. Users need to be aware of this feature, particularly if their investigation is covert.

Due dilligence

It’s important that social media is used as only one aspect of an investigation. Information should be verified by other online activities. In some cases, exercising due diligence also involves using offline research techniques, such as conducting interviews.

How to protect your identity

People that want their information to be private should adjust their security settings accordingly; otherwise, anyone can access publicly available information.

For example, on Facebook, users can click on the lock on the upper right hand of their profile and click “Who can see my stuff?” where they can verify things like what their Timeline looks like to the Public or a specific person.

Be aware that Facebook stores different categories of data about users beyond what is available on Facebook search, such as ads clicked, IP address, machine cookie and browser information, and a list of ad topics that Facebook is targeting users for based on pages they have Liked, their interests, and information posted on their Timeline.

Users that want a full understanding of all the personal information Facebook has about them can send Facebook a personal data request.

Hire an experienced private investigator

Private investigators that are experienced with online investigations often have access to databases, and are able to use online and offline investigation techniques that may involve making contact with the subject and conducting covert surveillance.

This research needs to be conducted by a private investigator who is very familiar with privacy issues and laws (so as not to infringe on other rights for privacy), and how to gather intelligence in a way that can stand up in court.

Photo Source: Flickr

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