It’s possible the feds may never have caught up with Javon Hardy without Facebook.
But prosecutors say he is the man in a Facebook Live video from the May riots in Rochester, New York, wearing a black hoodie and blue bandana and carrying a milk jug to a construction trailer. Moments later, the trailer ignites and the man on the video says, “If it’s not on fire, I didn’t do my job.”
Across the country in Portland, Oregon, investigators closed in on a man after spotting the distinctive vest he was wearing at the protests, captured in an online video, and then matching it to a photo his grandmother posted of him wearing the vest in an online product review.
The Black Lives Matter revolution is, it turns out, being televised — and livestreamed, tweeted and otherwise shared online. Now police are digging through the data and having stunning success in tracking down perpetrators months after the mayhem.
The Washington Times reviewed 23 cases brought in federal courts from Seattle to Tampa, Florida, over the past three months of racial justice demonstrations. At least 14 of those cases showed indications that investigators used social media to help them make arrests.
The court documents also make clear just how much data they are collecting.
When a cop car was torched in Salt Lake City, investigators told a judge they had scoured at least five social media platforms and video from four news agencies, as well as security cameras and police body-cam footage, to build a database of more than 80,000 video clips and 1,700 images.
Watching all the video from start to finish would take more than 85 days, prosecutors said.
Multiply that by the number of cases in Seattle; New York; the District of Columbia; Nashville, Tennessee; Philadelphia; Providence, Rhode Island; and elsewhere, and you begin to get an idea of the amount of data the protests have produced — and that police officers have collected.
Even if the amount of data is massive, the basic tactic isn’t new, said Art Bowker, a cybercrime expert and co-author of Investigating Internet Crimes. He said federal agencies and well-funded local departments are all up on the practice.
“Law enforcement has been developing the capability for a long time,” he said.
The wave of protests was ignited by the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis police custody. Video footage showing him under the knee of a White officer was posted online.
Now it’s protesters who are being snared by online video — often by their recordings of their own behavior.
“Everybody wants to be a star,” Mr. Bowker told The Times. “Posting on the internet gives you that capability. If you’re involved in some big event, you can say, ‘Here’s what I was doing during this event.’ If they’re doing something positive, that’s great, and if they’re doing something criminal, they just outed themselves.”
One of the more fascinating cases to emerge involves Gabriel Agard-Berryhill, who law enforcement said was caught on video posted by RT, a Russian-backed news outlet, as he tossed an explosive device at the federal courthouse in Portland.
The bomb-thrower was wearing a distinctive green vest.
Agents trolling the internet came across a Twitter post that showed a product review for that vest. The review was posted by “grammaf,” who wrote that she bought the vest “for my grandson who’s a protester downtown, he uses it every night and says its does the job.” She gave the vest a five-star rating.
She also posted a photo of her grandson posing in the vest while sitting on a car. Investigators then found that same photo on a Facebook page they determined belonged to Agard-Berryhill.
It turns out he was eager to turn himself in and already had contacted his parole officer. According to investigators, he said he was handed what he thought was a normal firework and realized he had messed up when he heard the massive explosion.
“When asked whether his intent was to destroy anything or damage anything or if he threw the object in anger at the courthouse, Agard-Berryhill responded he wanted to keep it so he could set it off with his friends somewhere, but the unknown male said he had to throw it or give it back,” wrote Amanda Johnson, an agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Agard-Berryhill said his grandmother indeed bought the vest he was wearing.
Burning cop car
The sheer amount of data is helping prosecutors bring cases weeks after the events.
In Utah, the U.S. attorney’s office announced charges last week against Lateesha Richards from an incident on May 30, when a Salt Lake City police officer was boxed in by protesters and had to flee from her car. A mob then flipped her car and set it on fire.
Ms. Richards took a selfie in front of the scorched car, walked away and then returned with a piece of clothing that she tossed onto the fire to keep it burning, prosecutors said. They said she then came back for another round of selfies along with Latroi Newbins, who, like Ms. Richards, has been charged with arson.
Investigators said they identified Ms. Richards from the video based in part on her neck tattoo.
Mr. Newbins has tried to argue that he was extinguishing the fire, not feeding it. But prosecutors told the judge during a detention hearing that posing for the selfie undercuts that explanation.
“That, your honor, is not consistent with someone who attempted to put out the fire. That’s consistent with someone who is enjoying watching a Salt Lake City patrol car burn,” said J. Drew Yeates from the U.S. attorney’s office.
In Rochester, investigators said they tracked down Mr. Hardy after seeing a Facebook Live video of someone going into a construction trailer and then leaving before the trailer caught fire.
When cops spoke to him, they said, he initially claimed he tried to put out the fire. When confronted with the video, he admitted he had set the fire, it went out, and he went back to reignite it, police said.
‘Come and get him’
In Seattle, as protesters ousted police and created the self-styled Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, a bystander posted online a video of a man who tried to start a fire at an abandoned police station inside the Zone.
Police saw the video and asked the public to identify the man. One anonymous tip reported it was Isaiah Thomas Willoughby who, the tipster said, had even admitted to the burning on his Facebook page, but scrubbed the post after realizing the police were looking for him.
Other tipsters, including Mr. Willoughby’s aunt, also called.
“The person who started the fire is my nephew. Come and get him,” she said, according to court documents. She confirmed that he had deleted social media posts, though investigators would later find he had missed some photos, including one placing him at the location of the protests at the right time.
Criminal defense lawyers tell clients once they are arrested not to try to clean up their social media because it could be seen as a tacit admission of guilt — and is probably futile because investigators can usually recover the contents anyway.
Lawyers do suggest clients reject any new friend requests because investigators sometimes use that tactic to try to gain access to private posts.
Lawyers also tell clients to warn acquaintances not to “tag” them in photos. Tagging is a practice of attaching names to people in images, and it can make it much easier for authorities to connect a person to a location or event.
Mr. Bowker said some people believe they are protecting themselves by using their accounts’ privacy settings. But things they share with their own networks are often reshared by family or friends who don’t have the same privacy settings, giving investigators a way to peek at something the original poster thought was private.
In Pittsburgh, where local, state and federal authorities have a joint task force probing recent riots, investigators are using facial recognition technology to match images to suspects, according to Public Source, a news organization that covers Pittsburgh.
The news outlet reported that social media was cited in 21 out of 32 cases brought in the city.
Illusions of privacy
Experts ponder the psychology behind cases like that of Mr. Willoughby, who authorities say posted online that he started the fire at the Seattle police station.
Chelsea Binns, an assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said part of it is the intimacy of the technology.
“Your phone feels very private to you,” she told The Times. “If you’re holding your private phone and you’re posting something for millions of people to see, for some reason psychologically, it can feel more private.”
There is also an element of modernity, particularly for younger people.
“Some people have just grown up with it and they’re used to posting their daily life,” she said. “It’s hard for us as investigators to flesh that out, but nevertheless the information is there.”
As social media has ballooned, so have the abilities of investigators.
While some make it easy to connect their posts to an event through use of hashtags, Mr. Bowker said, other programs can take search terms and scour the online world to track all the posts and comments and capture and archive the live feeds.
He said it “would be neglect” if investigators weren’t using it to solve crimes.
“I don’t want to sound like Big Brother is out there doing something nefarious. The social media is wide open,” he said.
Years ago, some judges were skeptical of the utility of social media.
Mr. Bowker recalled cases when courts rejected evidence based on social media, saying just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean it’s true. That thinking has faded as the boundaries of what social media can prove are more established.
Still, it’s just one factor — usually a starting point for identification, Mr. Bowker said.
“It’s got to be authenticated and properly admitted, but police are getting up to speed on that, and courts are willing to look at it and not just dismiss it,” he said.
Yet there are some limits, and in Portland police are bumping up against them right now.
Investigators say they are trying to track down a person they saw on social media videos throwing an improvised explosive device at protesters on Aug. 8. Protesters and their backers have complained that police haven’t made an arrest yet, but the Portland Police Bureau says it can’t make a case on the online information alone.
“As of today, no in-person witness, someone who was actually there, has come forward to assist in the investigation,” the police bureau said in a statement.