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Capitol Breach Investigations are Changing eDiscovery

On January 6, supporters of then-President Donald Trump breached the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to prevent Congress from certifying Joe Biden as the winner of the 2020 presidential election. As authorities look into who is responsible and what kinds of repercussions perpetrators should face, they’ll have over 140,000 pieces of digital media to aid their efforts. Throughout the Capitol Breach investigations, officials will be reliant on something much of the world knows nothing about: eDiscovery.

eDiscovery is the art and science of sorting through digital data to find the relevant pieces needed to build a legal case. 5-10 years ago, much of this data came in the form of emails and their attachments. However, many of the arrests relating to the Capitol riots cite digital evidence uploaded to social media sites.

One Connecticut man was charged because of a YouTube video. Two Massachusetts citizens were arrested because of photos on Twitter. A New Mexico County Commissioner was connected to the riots in part because of videos he posted on a “Cowboys for Trump” Facebook page. A man from Texas was arrested in part due to his posts on Parler. One such post allegedly included a threat to return to Washington, D.C. on January 19 armed and ready for insurrection: “We will come in numbers that no standing army or police agency can match,” the post allegedly states. 

That shift away from email-exclusive discovery strategies was already happening, but the Capitol riots may expedite it. Investigators are still sorting through digital data, and we likely haven’t seen the last of arrests related to this incident. Many cases will hinge on whether or not eDiscovery professionals can connect individuals to the scene and whether or not there’s digital evidence that reveals offenders’ true intentions. Either way, the Capitol breach investigations shed a light on what kind of technology is available and how law enforcement is using it. Depending on the outcomes of these cases, we may see social media-based data integrated into discovery on a much larger scale.

The Value of Geolocation

Ordinary people probably know that investigators can find incriminating things people have published on the internet. However, they might be surprised to learn just how easy it is to figure out which electronic devices were actually at the Capitol on the day of the attack. Geolocation, or more specifically “geofencing”  involves drawing a virtual boundary around a specific location, and then using technology such as GPS or Bluetooth to find devices within that boundary.

“Right now, law enforcement can pull social media information from a geolocation at will or with relatively few roadblocks,” says James Whitehead, Contact Discovery’s Associate Director of Digital Forensics. “Law enforcement agencies can capture wireless communications and pull packets off wires. This technology/capability is expanding among law enforcement departments at a rapid pace.”

This is important because many people have said hyperbolic things on the internet, and that in and of itself isn’t a crime. One of the challenges facing investigators is separating those who simply wrote inflammatory messages from those who acted on their intent. With geolocation, investigators can prove that someone who published violent threats online was actually at the Capitol at the time of the attack.

An offender’s sentence could also vary quite a bit if prosecutors can use social media posts to prove there was prior intent to attack the Capitol. That’s a very different scenario from someone who showed up for what they thought was a peaceful protest, got caught in the moment, and then showed remorse after the fact.

Social media companies are also aiding law enforcement in matching locations to other parts of a user’s profile.

“At one point Facebook had 100+ metadata fields for its site,” Whitehead says. “This includes user names, likes, names of the likers, time of the likes and/or shares, and then most if not everything is geolocated. Often these metadata records include associations to the authoring/viewing device’s unique identifiers including IP address, which further aids in geolocating.”

In the case of Twitter, investigators can collect tweets in a geolocated fence and by hashtag.

“I could essentially drill down to the Capitol and then to hashtags of interest,” says Whitehead. “If I expanded my resources, I could cross-reference known individuals and pull all their tweets and anyone who shared or viewed them within a geofenced area.”

That combination of what people said online and their whereabouts at the time of the Capitol attacks gives investigators added insight. Suddenly they’re able to comprehend not only the “what” but the “who,” “where,” and “why” as well. Geolocation could also play an important role in providing alibis to those who published inflammatory statements, but were not physically present at the Capitol at the time of the attack.

Constructing Larger Narratives

Not only can law enforcement use social media data to pinpoint where suspects were the day of the attacks, they can also use it to show what kinds of things suspects were writing weeks before. This helps investigators tell a more complete story.

One suspect, Brendan Hunt, allegedly called for the murder of elected officials on an online video platform called BitChute. However, the charges against him also mention a Facebook post on or from approximately December 6, 2020, a whole month before the Capitol breach. According to the affidavit, this post called for “revenge on Democrats” and a “public execution” of Senator Chuck Schumer and Representatives Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“If you [Trump] don’t do it, the citizenry will,” says Hunt’s post.

Another case revolves around a Utah man named John Earle Sullivan. Sullivan handed over 50 minutes of video footage to authorities. He’s also uploaded large amounts of video content regarding the riots to YouTube under the name JaydenX. The criminal complaint against Sullivan claims his voice can be heard on the tape saying celebratory things like “We accomplished this s**t. We did this together.”

At the time of this writing, JaydenX’s YouTube channel not only features footage of the Capitol riots on January 6, but other MAGA, Proud Boys, and Black Lives Matter protests dating back to June 1, 2020. If you’re the defense, you might argue this YouTube account proves that Sullivan is just an independent video journalist, attending and recording any protest he thinks will be of interest regardless of the cause. If you’re the prosecution, you might use it to establish that Sullivan is a dangerous agent of chaos and has been for some time. Either way, it’s hard to imagine that legal teams will look at what’s likely hundreds of hours of political protest footage from the last six months and think that only the January 6 footage is relevant.

General Awareness of ESI in Law Enforcement

Perhaps most importantly of all, the riots have made the general public more aware of how digital data can be helpful to law enforcement. Sometimes, public ignorance can aid investigators. People incriminate themselves largely because they don’t know their messages can be found later. The events at the Capitol have created large scale awareness of the role that social media posts and other electronic messages can play in investigations.  

That awareness is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it could drive bad actors to alternative platforms where they’re harder to find. On a more optimistic note, well-intentioned people are more likely to be on the lookout for digital evidence in their day-to-day lives. Heck, one Twitter user even mentioned using dating apps as a way of getting perpetrators to volunteer evidence against themselves:

Only time will tell how this case shakes up the world of eDiscovery. What won’t change is the critical role that legal technology plays in finding the truth.

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