Police in Lower Saxony are using social media networks to search for criminals. State interior ministers are discussing whether to introduce the new investigation method nationwide - but there are potential problems.
The message begins with the salutation "Dear Investigation Supporter." Then comes the case – "Missing 10-year-old girl" - followed by a notice to "kindly contact the central criminal office."
The public search via Facebook can now begin. Once posted, the call for support spreads quickly throughout the social network; it can expect to be reposted more than 400 times.
The use of Facebook since March 2012 by police in Lower Saxony could soon become reality in the other German states as well, if Michael Neumann, Senator of the Interior with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Hamburg, has his way.
"We can no longer ignore social networks like Facebook," said Neumann at the annual fall conference of state interior ministers in Osnabrück.
Lower Saxony leading the way
State justice ministers have already studied the issue - but they remain divided.
The German states of Hesse and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern also allow the use of social networks to hunt down criminals, but Lower Saxony is leading the pack. More than 170,000 people regularly follow the “Lower Saxony Police Investigation” Facebook page. They are eager to help by commenting, spreading news and, ideally, providing concrete evidence.
Uwe Schwellnus, a spokesman with the Lower Saxony criminal police department, calls the new investigation method an "absolute success" with obvious benefits. "It can happen quickly that unknown offenders draw huge public attention leading to useful information," he told DW.
So far, Lower Saxony investigators have posted 160 information requests. How many of these have actually resulted in successful investigations isn't known.
The idea of using posts instead of posters is in sync with today's media usage. Traditional media channels such as radio and newspapers, for instance, struggle to reach young people. And that's what has prompted police to pursue new approaches to inform them and seek their help.
The procedure is initiated in the same way: The public prosecutor must always approve the Facebook investigation.
No way back
But as convincing as the new investigation method may sound, it does have its critics. A key problem is that German criminal law doesn't allow private services to be used for public investigations. Facebook servers are privately owned and operated.
Legal Internet expert Solmecke wams of potential pitfalls when using Facebook for police investigations
Moreover, once something is posted, the content belongs to Facebook and can't be deleted. Unlike a poster on a wall, which can be removed, a Facebook post remains stored on a server. There's no way back.
Police in Lower Saxony have found a way to work around the issue: Photos and personal data are published not directly on Facebook but on police servers, and are deleted after an investigation has been completed.
But experts warn that his approach doesn't solve all legal data privacy issues. For instance, when sharing a link, Facebook automatically grabs the photo even if it is stored on a supposedly secure police server. The photo can surface on the social network even without a reconstructed investigation photo being directly posted.
Internet legal expert Christian Solmecke warns that the practice needs to be closely examined. Technical details, he says, make the decisive difference between what is right or wrong.
Concerns about misuse
Using Facebook to support investigations is controversial not only because of data privacy issues, but also because of the network's ability to disseminate information. The spreading of a posted photo can develop an undesired momentum. Critics, for instance, warn of Internet investigations being misused to launch hate campaigns.
There have been cases of denunciation, police in Lower Saxony admit. However, they state that mean or objectionable comments are immediately deleted. Comments are monitored around the clock.
Facebook, by comparison, can't be so easily controlled. There have been repeated instances of digital persecution. A flurry of posts, for instance, followed the arrest of a man who had allegedly killed a girl, with messages like "Lock him up" and "Let's stone the pig." The man turned out to be innocent. Those who posted the messages calling for vigilante justice were subsequently punished.
So is this the future of criminal investigation? Justice ministers and interior ministers have not yet agreed on the use of social media in searching for criminals and missing people - but Facebook users have already made up their minds. They're "liking" the new investigation methods, with smileys and comments like "Great, good to hear," and "Thumbs up for the whole concept!"