(NOTE) This article is not intended to be an intellectual analysis of the industry, it is published as a time marker to show where the industry has been, where it is today, and where it may be headed, IMHO.

What is Social Media Surveillance?

In a nutshell, Social Media Surveillance is the practice of locating and harvesting online content written by a person of interest in their personal social media profiles. Content includes photos, text, messages back and forth between this person and their friends, as well as content referenced on friends’ and family members’ profiles.

A (brief) History of the Practice

Social Media Surveillance originally emerged around 2010 as an offshoot of traditional physical surveillance. At its beginning, the only companies performing this kind of search were ex-law enforcement and active-duty officers, looking for activity that would allow more precise targeting for their physical surveillance efforts.

The purpose for Social Media Surveillance was, therefore, to place officers or investigators strategically throughout the geographic area to prevent or document illicit activity “IRL” (In Real Life).

Eventually the court system saw the potential in the data itself, and legislation was created regarding the practice of searching for and capturing social media data, allowing it to be used in its natural state in court.

As the court became more involved, the burden of proof for data harvesting and chain of custody intensified. At the same time, the number of people attempting to harvest data ballooned. Claims adjusters, internal SIU departments for insurance companies and TPAs, beat cops, ex-police officers, surveillance companies, and employers all started launching fake social media profiles and searching. The result was a mass “throwing out” of data submitted in court cases due to improper attribution of the data, lack of meta data preservation, and even mis-identified Persons Of Interest. Yes it’s true, the content submitted to court was often the content of an unrelated person who had the same name and “sort of looked the same” as the Person of Interest.

It was around this time that our company launched (Fraud Sniffr, Inc) in response to this unstructured data harvesting nightmare (nightmare is our word, of course). We were created by a team including a veteran claims adjuster/manager, a data analyst, social media expert, and database expert. Our goal was to solve the problems of POI mis-identification, data storage, data proliferation and target spoliation (you know, where the POI goes back through their old social media posts and changes everything to conform to their case). Our intent was to provide the ultimate solution to Social Media Surveillance for the industry.

What is Social Media Surveillance doing today?

To be honest, the state of the industry is a full on land-grab. Or should we say, revenue grab? TPAs and internal SIU departments see Social Media Surveillance as a revenue source that is so easy “anyone can do it.” They forge ahead, providing minimal training to their staff, and then start assigning claims. It’s penny wise and pound foolish — they earn a fee for completing a search, but if the search misses content, or locates the wrong POI, it costs the organization thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars.

What are the training resources available for these searchers?

Internal training is performed by someone who “seems to be pretty good at this stuff”, although they do not have any POI identification standards, data authentication, or data management training.

There are currently some online courses that provide a certification. We recently completed a McAffee training academy course, and were appalled to see that the content hadn’t been updated in nearly two years. Much of the content and techniques exploited back doors into social media platforms that have since been coded out (closed) by the social media venues.

We are concerned for the practitioners within this industry, because there is currently little to no training with regard to how to properly store or create chronology with the recovered content. We see adjusters harvesting information via their personal cell phones, and emailing that content to their work email addresses while logged into social media. We see SIU fatigue where an easily identified POI is listed as “not able to be found”. We see PDF reports generated for court that do not include post URLs or Metadata. It’s like watching toddlers try to cross the freeway.

As long as the industry continues to focus on the initial cost of an investigation, the potential exists for continued claim losses, due to incomplete, incorrect, or inconclusive data recovery.

A Glimpse of the Future:

We are already seeing social media venues protecting users’ privacy more and more. Social Media Surveillance will stop being perceived as something that “just anyone” can do well.

We will see browser plugins and phone apps that identify all visitors to all social media profiles, so the POI may eventually be able to see Social Media Surveillance searchers viewing their profiles. There are apps available right now that show visitors to profiles, however they currently show only friends and friends of friends visiting their profiles. If you look in the Chrome extensions list, you can add an extension that does this today. There are currently seven apps in the Google app store that provide this functionality as well.

Plaintiff Counsel will also begin looking more closely at new legal methods for throwing Social Media Surveillance reports out. Several technicalities already exist that can invalidate social media findings, surely more will be added.

We anticipate the industry will realize that Social Media Surveillance departments within SIU will need advanced, specialized training. They will also realize that a discrete data storage solution is needed instead of just emailing everything to the adjusters (like they do right now).

We also believe that the practice of ongoing monitoring will become critically important. Looking at a POI once and then retiring the file will not be considered useful. Social media content will start being integrated into overall claims health dashboards as a primary flag for non-compliant behavior throughout the claims process.

We have several other predictions, but this article is already getting long. The Social Media Surveillance industry is in its infancy. Expect rapid and amazing changes in the next five years, and a total system integration in ten years.