A specialist Cheshire Police team has given a rare insight into how they investigate crime on social networks.

The force’s eForensics department includes the Hi-Tech Crime Unit, which helped to bring two men to justice in the county for using Facebook to incite violence during the recent wave of rioting.

Monitoring and capturing material put on sites such as Facebook and Twitter is a rapidly growing area of the unit’s work.

Det Sgt Andy Dodd, who leads the unit, said: “Social networks have become part of everyday life.

“It would be ridiculous for us to ignore that fact. When there are messages and pictures which provide evidence for criminal investigations we have equipment and specially-trained officers to recover them.”

Det Con Peter Lee, who led the case into the two Cheshire men inciting violence during the riots, said: “In this type of inquiry our first stage is the ‘live capture’ of any messages.

“In most cases we have usually had a call from a member of the public to say that something has appeared on a Facebook site or as a Tweet or something similar and they are concerned about it.

“Then we have to move quickly. We need to get an image of the message or picture before it disappears from the server. We can search an area of the social network using key words and see what is there.”

The next stage is the seizure of the computer which originated the message. Then the unit can begin what it terms the “dead box” investigation. This can take days, weeks or months.

Det Con Dan Parry added: “A lot of the messages we are interested in have gone straight to the social network site server, but we can recover fragments, snippets, which have gone on to the hard drive of the computer. We can often build a very complete picture of what has been going on.”

DC Lee added: “A murderer may use an instant chat message to discuss his plan with someone. He may then go on to the internet to research methods of killing; to buy a gun; to look for ways of covering his tracks; to deter a forensic investigation. All this activity is traceable.”

Eighty per cent of the unit’s work is investigating child pornography.

“Again, social network sites are becoming increasingly involved. In many cases of that type we provide all the evidence. In other cases we secure supporting evidence in what may be a much more widely based investigation.”

“Some people may have the idea we sit here monitoring Facebook and Twitter across the board. We do not. Our work is reactive.

“We are not public-facing but the results we get can have a real benefit. The work we do to catch and convict paedophiles is important, but we are also involved in major operations – investigations into murder, fraud, robbery, all the higher profile crimes.”

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