As people spend more time on social media platforms, the digital trails they leave are playing a larger role in corporate investigations.
From helping companies identify suspicious activity to highlighting connections that warrant further investigations, more companies are using analytics tools to examine social media content and potentially uncover evidence or indications of undesirable behavior. FEI Daily spoke with Wendy Schmidt, a Forensics & Investigations principal at Deloitte, about the growing use of social media analytics.
FEI Daily: Are you seeing more interest in companies using social media in investigations?
Wendy Schmidt: Absolutely. The amount of social data amassing every day has become a virtual treasure trove for companies and investigators. Whether it’s HR-focused or focused more on deals or investigations, new technologies enable us to tap into the social web to capture information in ways that we’ve never been able to do before.
In the area of litigation support and trial intelligence, we use it quite frequently. We use it in the context of M&A transactions where we’re looking to find out as much as we can about a target company and their operations. We’ve used it in the context of insider threat investigations, internal investigations, security investigations or to evaluate activist threats.
FEI Daily: What kinds of data are you typically examining?
Wendy Schmidt: That would really depend on what the company is looking for. So for example, if it’s a transaction, you’re going to be looking for information about the target. In addition to traditional investigative or public record sources, you would also look at social media sources to find out as much as you can. If it’s in the context of a fraud investigation or an insider threat investigation, you’re going to be looking for a very different type of information.
FEI Daily: If you were to do an insider threat investigation, what would that tend to look like?
Wendy Schmidt: The way that would typically start is that you would get an anonymous letter, a whistleblower allegation or other information indicating that somebody within your ranks is potentially connected to a terrorist organization, or is potentially contemplating some illicit or dangerous activity. What you would like to do in that context is try to identify a profile for that person in social media, and then look to see what they are saying and who they’re connected to — and, particularly, are they connected to any other employees within the organization? Can you pick up any public communications that they are having with other employees that would indicate a potential threat to the organization?
That will give you leads as to who to potentially interview in an insider threat investigation. It’s smoke, it’s not fire, but it’s a valuable investigative tool. And then based on that, you will conduct more traditional work with regard to that potential threat.
FEI Daily: How about financial fraud?
Wendy Schmidt: Let’s say there’s potential vendor procurement fraud. What we can do is look for people who are employed by that vendor, who you suspect could be involved in a fraud, and then you can look at their profiles. Through the use of analytic tools and keyword searches, you can see who they’re connected to on social media, with employees of your company, and that will again, give you leads for your investigative team. That’s one way you can use it.
We also use it, for example, in Foreign Corrupt Practices Act investigations, where we’re trying to explore individuals’ connections to government officials. And so we look at individuals who are suspected of wrongdoing, and look at their connections to public officials. It doesn’t mean that because you’re friends with somebody on social media, that there’s anything illicit about that relationship, but it’s a lead to follow up on.
FEI Daily: Do people engaged in suspicious activity they think that what they’re exchanging is private, or is it more a case of people being careless online?
Wendy Schmidt: We think it’s a combination of both. There are a number of situations where people use social media overtly to attract support for their causes. That can be in the context of recruiting people to shareholder activism cases or potential terrorist activity. On the other hand, we see people who are communicating on the dark web, which is not part of social media per se, but we see a lot of illicit activity on the dark web, and you need special tools to be able to investigate and gather information there.
Even if somebody’s profile is set with very high security settings, we may not be able to view that person’s profile directly, but through the use of analytic tools, we’re sometimes able to look at their activities through other people they’re connected to.
Essentially, you’re only as safe as your weakest link. So if there are people within your network who have low privacy settings, we can often find information out about connections and communications between a subject and another person, based on the investigation target’s connections.
FEI Daily: What are some of the advantages analytic tools can offer?
Wendy Schmidt: These new technologies allow us to tap into the social web and capture information in ways that we have never been able to do before. In a few minutes, these tools allow for the collection and correlation of information in a way that’s really not possible by a human being alone. And uncovering information about relationships that would take months for an investigator to uncover manually, if they could even discover it at all.
FEI Daily: Are you seeing more adoption in some industries versus others?
Wendy Schmidt: That’s a tough question because it’s so new. I believe this is industry-agnostic, but I would say that in my experience so far, energy, financial services, and transportation are the industries that we work more closely with in this regard.
FEI Daily: Are there any common obstacles or mistakes that companies have to guard against as they explore this tool?
Wendy Schmidt: You can’t look at this in a vacuum. There are many other aspects of investigations that have to be conducted. In particular, when you’re looking at a person and their social media profile, you wouldn’t want to look at that alone — you also would want to look at social data in tandem with available public record information as well.
In addition to that, the investigative team, through forensic review of books and records, may have other information, so all of that information needs to be analyzed and put together in context.
You also need to work very closely with legal counsel because there are a variety of rules and laws that you have to follow when you use social media, and so it’s very important to take advice from counsel as to the nature and extent of the use of social media for any particular purpose.
Despite that, though, businesses are overwhelmingly recognizing the value of social media data in so many different contexts and in a variety of situations. With the growth in social media data and its use, this is going to grow in importance as a tool as new analytical solutions and platforms emerge.•