Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Instarat: the dangerous world of criminal networking

By Johnny McCabe

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The city of Philadelphia has a serious problem with Instagram. In a bizarre scenario that seems like it would fit more comfortably in a comic book than real life, an anonymous account has taken to the social network, posting personal information of critical witnesses to violent crimes and undercover police informants. Just how this account managed to obtain such sensitive information and how it remains impervious to all forms of investigation. In an age of increasing dependence on technology and with the domain of Internet crime continuing to expand, Philadelphia’s problem highlights the truly ambiguous nature of “cyber-security.”

The account, known to its followers and Philadelphia law enforcement as “rats215,” has been posting since February of this year, fulfilling its self-proclaimed mission to “expose rats.” Since its creation, “rats215” has been delivering unsettlingly timely updates of the biographical information and word for word testimonies of its victims, most of which is confidential and not in the public record. The account has grown to serve a twisted fan base of sorts which has reached almost 7,900 followers.

The account’s almost daily posts garners a number of likes and comments praising the account for its service and encouraging a variety of violent threats against those implicated by its leaks, even venturing to request new information for the sole purpose of putting hits on them. One subject implicated by “rats215,” whose testimony in a homicide investigation was exposed by the account in the summer of 2012, reported to have been shot at shortly after the leak; it was this individual’s further cooperation with law enforcement that lead them to suspect “rats215” in the first place.

Philadelphia itself is no stranger to this type of behavior, having developed a notorious reputation for violence against witnesses and those who assist in police investigations. The tactic, known as “witness intimidation,” has been spreading like wildfire throughout the city of Philadelphia in particular, representing “a challenge we’re facing and a challenge we’re attempting to work through,” according to Philadelphia Police Department Lt. John Walker.

“These actions shoot an arrow through the heart of the criminal justice system, placing victims and witnesses at risk,” Walker said. “These accounts should be voluntarily removed by the host of such sites.”

In the wake of the NSA surveillance scandal, with lofty claims about Internet neutrality and the sanctity of individual privacy, situations like the witness intimidation scare in Philadelphia draw attention to the relatively thin line between respecting an individual’s Internet rights and perpetuating a criminal act. Bureaucrats arguing in defense of PRISM surveillance posited that such highly sensitive information could never be revealed to the public, as it would jeopardize national security by exposing it to malicious foreign elements. The “rats215” Instagram account represents a twisted inversion of that line of reasoning, in which crucial data is released to a somewhat more insidious public for the express purpose of bringing harm to them. At the same time, law enforcement officials like Lt. Walker support the notion that it is the responsibility of the social networking host to uphold the moral high ground and police its own users independent of police action, whether it be Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.

Instagram itself has a rather storied history with cracking down on criminal activity on its turf. For example, this August, the New York City Police Department carried out the largest seizure of illegal firearms in the history of the city, all because of an aspiring young rapper’s obnoxious Instagram posts. Other social networking sites, however, have come under fire from both private parties and government agencies for their willingness or refusal to provide user information for prosecutorial purposes, such as Twitter’s staunch denial of a New York State court’s demand last July for account information of an Occupy protester.

Regardless of the potential implications, Philadelphia has a serious problem that seems only likely to worsen in the future. The impact of criminal intentions on social networks is only just beginning to surface, and society will have to roll with the punches, for better or for worse. When criminal activity hides under the pretense of personal liberty, the debate is no longer black and white.

Johnny McCabe is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]

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