Never anonymous: How law enforcement tracks down social media threats

Published: Dec. 12, 2014 at 12:39 AM CST|Updated: May. 19, 2016 at 2:26 PM CDT
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LUBBOCK, TX (KCBD) - Local technology experts are warning the community about the dangers of anonymous apps after police arrested a juvenile who posted an online threat to Frenship ISD.

Posting in the "After School" social media app, the suspect claimed to have brought a gun to the campus and threatened to harm students and staff.

"In cases like this, where somebody's health or danger is involved, they can go back and track through all the apps, through the internet, through the carriers," said Brent Bloodworth, president of iOrchard. "There's always a trail, just depends on how much trouble they want to go to, to get to it."

That is exactly what local and federal investigators did, with cooperation from Facebook, Apple and the After School app administration, even though the app claims to never reveal users' identities.

Bloodworth has a theory about the investigation prior to Wednesday's arrest.

"When you log into the app it requires your Facebook info. That's how they determine which school you're in, so they need to know your location and your personal information - your email address, your friends and that kind of thing," Bloodworth said.

"So they figure out which school you are in. When they went to Facebook with the threat and said, 'Hey, someone is threatening to do this, we need to find out who did this ASAP' Facebook said, 'Here's our policy: here's the name of the user,' and then they worked their way backward from there."

Even if the After School account was registered through a fake Facebook profile, Bloodworth said a cell phone number or the computer's IP address could still give the user's identity away.

"Once you put it out on the internet, it's out there for good," he said. "Don't do something stupid, including threatening comments like this one was, or things you don't want people to know about 20 years from now. Whether or not they say it is anonymous, that may not be true in the future."

Frenship ISD Superintendent David Vroonland hopes this case will set an example and teach students how seriously anonymous threats are taken at their campuses.

"Even if these app developers tell you you're anonymous, there are ways in which you will be found," he said. "You, as a user, have to remember you are morally and legally responsible for your behavior when you're on these social media sites."

Vroonland asks not just students…but all citizens to use cautious while posting to social media sites.

"You need to make sure you are engaging in positive behavior," he said, "and not things that will have unhealthy consequences for you and those around you."

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