Applied Information Management

Investigative Strategies for Internet-based Hate, Bias, and Terror Crimes

In Brief: Internet-based criminal investigations and their accompanying success are often still measured against conventional investigation standards, with origins that date back to 1829 when England's Parliament passed the Metropolitan Police Act. Today, a successful criminal investigation considers the following criteria: (1) a logical sequence is followed, (2) all available physical evidence is legally obtained, (3) witnesses are effectively interviewed, (4) suspect(s) are legally and effectively interrogated, (5) all leads are thoroughly developed, and (6) details of the case are accurately and completely recorded (Gilbert, 2001). While law enforcement professionals are not bound by these existing criminal investigation standards, it has been demonstrated that when these standards are followed, the result is an increase in successful criminal prosecutions.

Successful investigation of hate, bias, and terror offenses in an Internet environment requires law enforcement professionals to blend conventional and new technology strategies.

However, the strategies law enforcement professionals implement during Internet-based investigations are different and continue to emerge as technology evolves. The extraordinary development of the Internet over the past few years has fundamentally changed the way in which criminals commit crimes and law enforcement professionals conduct criminal investigations. It is incumbent upon law enforcement personnel to implement creative and progressive investigative strategies to meet the challenges that Internet-based investigation creates.

This paper includes a comprehensive guide that investigators can use when examining Internet-based hate, bias, and terror crimes. Focus is on questions that must be asked, key decisions that must be made and proper procedures that must be followed when seizing electronic evidence (see Figure 1). In the early stages of the investigation, it is important for law enforcement personnel to recognize indicators that may suggest a hate, bias, or terror crime. Indicators that need to be considered include the following: Is the victim a member of a targeted class? Are the victim and offender from different groups? Were bias-related objects, items, or symbols used during the incident?

As the investigation progresses it is important for the investigator to recognize the subtle differences between Internet-based and conventional investigation search, seizure, and collection approaches regarding incriminating evidence. The investigator needs to understand statutory privacy protections afforded to individuals by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (1986) legislation. Investigators should understand the different legal requirements for obtaining subscriber or content information as well as clearly understand and remain up to date with emerging Internet-focused legislation, criminal court case law, and technological advances concerning Internet-based criminal investigations.

Question Investigative Strategy
Has an internet hate, bias, or terror crime occurred?
  • Is the victim a member of a targeted class?
  • Would the crime have taken place if the victim and offender were of the same group?
  • Did the offender use biased text, pictures, video, or audio during the incident?
Where and when did the offense occur?
  • Date, time, and location the communication was received and opened by the victim.
  • Document the legal jurisdiction of victim.
Who were the participants in the planning and execution of the offense?
  • Collect any and all identifying information
  • e-mail address
  • Internet Service Provider information
  • Legal jurisdiction of the suspects' computer
Are there witnesses to the offense?
  • Document and interview all witnesses
  • Victims and/or victim associates
  • Contact appropriate suspect(s) jurisdiction
  • All persons having access to the computer
Is there evidence of the offense?
  • Collect hard copies of all material victim received from the suspect(s)
  • Begin subpoena process for subscriber account information
  • Begin consent/search warrant process
In what manner or by what method was the crime perpetrated?
  • Use of computer
  • Seize suspect computer
Is there an indication of guilt or innocence to aid in a just solution to the case?
  • In-depth interviews and the collection of all physical evidence
  • Victim's legal jurisdiction
  • Suspect's legal jurisdiction
  • Objectively evaluate statements/evidence

Figure 1—A Guide to Internet-Based Hate, Bias and Terror Investigations

The United States Department of Justice provides investigators with valuable information pertaining to the legal search of computers and seizure of electronic evidence in the March 2001 publication, Searching and Seizing Computers and Obtaining Electronic Evidence in Criminal Investigation.


(Selected citations only)

  • A Policymaker's Guide to Hate Crimes (March, 1997). U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Assistance. Retrieved April 20, 2004 from A Policymaker's Guide to Hate Crimes.
  • Bouman, W. (March, 2003). Best practices of hate/bias crime investigation. Retrieved April 12, 2004 from Federal Bureau of Investigation website.
  • Electronic Communications Privacy Act (1986). Retrieved May 24, 2004 from University of Oregon Libraries.
  • Gilbert, J. (2004). Criminal Investigation, 6th ed. Prentice Hall. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.
  • Swanson, C., Chamelin, N., Territo, L. (2003). Criminal Investigation, 8th ed. McGraw-Hill.
  • Surin, A. (2000). To catch a cybercriminal. Retrieved April 7, 2004 from the Computer Crime Research Center.
  • United States Department of Justice (March, 2001). Searching and Seizing Computers and Obtaining Electronic Evidence in Criminal Investigations. Office of Legal Education, Executive Office for United States Attorneys.

Research Paper Author: Rick Putnam—2004 AIM Graduate, Detective Sergeant, Investigative Services Bureau, Springfield Oregon Police Department

Abstract: This study examines the investigative strategies law enforcement professionals are implementing to meet the challenges of Internet-based hate, bias, and terror crimes. Internet-based strategies are compared to conventional hate, bias, and terror investigative strategies already in use by law enforcement. The result is the design of a comprehensive guide for law enforcement personnel to use when investigating such crimes, including specific key questions to ask, decisions to make, and procedures for seizure of electronic evidence.

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