I-Team 8

Here is why gaining access to social media accounts is tough for police

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Gaining access to a social media account often times requires a subpoena or court order, and even then it is not guaranteed the social media company will comply. 

Doug Kouns is a retired FBI agent and co-founder of Veracity IIR, a private investigative firm in Carmel. He has not worked on the Delphi case. Kouns is, however, well-versed in how police gain access to social media accounts. Even when a judge issues a search warrant or subpoena, access is not guaranteed.  

“What we in law enforcement investigations have dealt with recently though is push back from these companies sometimes. They are very protective of their user’s privacy, so they often challenge the subpoenas and search warrants before complying with them,” Kouns said. 

He says access to a social media account can be almost impossible if the provider is overseas. Even with existing treaties with the United States and foreign governments, court orders and subpoenas are often ignored.  

“[It is] pretty much impossible depending on what country and what kind of relationship the United States has with them” Kouns said.  

There are times when police want access to social media posts that have been deleted by the provider or the user. A few platforms like Instagram and WhatsApp do not back up or save that information.  Once it is gone, it is really gone. 

However, some providers do save deleted posts. Gaining access, even when a user has granted police access, requires jumping through a lot of hoops. The court orders have to land on the right desk and in the hands of the right person, or it could be months or years before access to granted. And cops expect some pushback.  

“The line gets too blurred, I think is the mentality, so you just clearly set a boundary and those are the rules” Kouns said.  

He adds that every time police release new information concerning the Delphi case, they will get a flood of new tips. His firm has even received a few tips in the past, which his forwards onto investigators.  

Kouns believes investigators had access to the social media accounts of Abby Williams and Libby German early on the in investigation.