Geopolitics

Is It Legal For Vigilantes To Hunt For Suspects On Facebook?

Social network searches have become common practice among police forces. But now victims, too, are searching online for offenders. What is legal, and what isn’t?

Looking for someone?
Looking for someone?
Sara Weber and Lars Langenau

MUNICH â€" Online witch-hunt or smart investigative technique? When Hannover police started a pilot project in March 2011 to ask the public to search on Facebook for offenders, privacy advocates were shocked. At the time, most of the criticism of the project was reserved for the fact that user's data was stored on American servers, which the police did not have access to.

As criticism subsided, the project was eventually extended to the whole country. For regional police spokesman Frank Federau, this is a success story. "We are able to reach young people with our work on social networks," he says. "Feedback comes in quickly and contributes to the success of investigations."

Federau admits that concrete numbers about how successful these sorts of public searches really are don’t exist. But then again, if there’s an interesting hint or tip, it doesn’t really matter how, where and when someone found it. Social network searches have become routine for the police, just like scanning newspapers or listening to the radio.

Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office, too, has been using Facebook more often, moving away from static investigations and towards greater interactivity. The first success: the search for hooligans during the European Soccer Championship in Lille, during which six suspects were identified through Facebook.

"There are strict rules concerning photographic searches," explains Thomas Baumann, spokesman for the Munich police department. The method may not be used unless all other search methods have been exhausted. In addition, the police must first get the permission of the public prosecutor's office. Only once a judge approves it, a suspect’s photo can be published.

That’s exactly what happened in the case of Jasmin, a young woman who was raped 11 years ago. The crime remains unsolved, and the culprit is probably still out there. The investigation files are at the public prosecutor’s office in the central German city of Kassel, sitting in a pile of other unsolved cases.

Jasmin couldn’t accept that, so years after the crime, she decided to create a Facebook group called "Search For Unknown Rapist," which already has more than 30,000 members. The group’s profile picture features the culprit’s identy kit, as well as photos of objects he lost at the crime scene.

All of this could already be found on the police website in 2005. With her Facebook group, however, Jasmin effectively widened the search perimeter. "It’s just like distributing digital flyers with material that has been released by the authorities," she says. "It's simply a reminder of an ongoing search."

In fact, the redistribution of the material falls into a kind of legal gray area, says lawyer Udo Vetter. But Jasmin’s operation is certainly not a crime in and of itself.

Lynching risks

"The biggest risk she’s taking is that the culprit may sue her for invading his privacy," says Vetter. But that remains strictly hypothetical, and the victim will most likely not care, if ultimately her offender is caught.

Before Jasmin launched her Facebook page, she made sure to learn about all the various legal constraints, and she makes it explicitly clear that she will not tolerate "insults, allegations, hostilities or calls for lynching, nor the publishing of individuals’ data." Clues should not be posted to the group’s page either, but submitted directly to the police.

Prosecuting authorities point out that the offender’s identy kit picture, which was produced immediately after the attack, is now out-of-date and may lead to false allegations. Nevertheless, they express sympathy for Jasmin, who in turn is personally empowered by her initiative.

Yet anyone attempting an independent online photo search should be aware that "in Germany, the presumption of innocence prevails, and therefore calls for private searches are strictly forbidden," says Karsten Gulden, an expert in media law. This also applies to insults and death threats the victim might have received, by email for instance: They may not be published with the offending person’s profile picture or real name.

"The law says that no one’s picture can be circulated without his consent," says Gulden, with exceptions made for images of public figures or those on police fliers. Violation of the law can lead to fines or imprisonment.

But there’s more: "If the person who’s diffusing the photo knows that the suspect is not guilty, then it may be considered defamation," Gulden notes. If the person was simply mistaken when making the allegations, he or she might still be convicted for slander, which also entails punishment.

Many calls for private searches for individuals later prove to be false, and then not only may the people who started them be held responsible, but also anyone who shared the published information. In the hours after the Boston Marathon bombing, the name and photograph of a missing person was circulated on a "Find Boston Bombers" section of the social media Reddit. It turned out the person, who had nothing to do with the attack, had committed suicide.

"If you’re a victim of a crime, you’re better off talking to the police," says Gulden. "You may suggest (to the police) to use social media for their search."

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.

[*Danish]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

98

For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.

🇮🇷🎓  IN OTHER NEWS

Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Thoughts on Facebook's new name? Zuckerverse? Tell us how the news look in your corner of the world: Drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ