Survival of Witness Protection Program in the Digital Age

Posted by
Sep 27, 2019
Reviewed by
Jan 16, 2024
min. read
Table of Contents

In 2019, entering the witness protection program is more than simply changing your name and moving to a new place. It requires a disconnect from the online world so people don’t accidentally expose their true identity. Unfortunately, with the growth of social media, ad tracking, and use of biometric authentication, there may be nowhere left to hide.

Basics of the Program

The Federal Witness Protection Program was developed in 1971 by Justice Department employee, Gerald Shur. It gave families and individuals a safe space after tipping off law enforcement to serious crimes. It is now known as the Witness Security Program and has relocated and given new identities to over 8,600 witnesses and close to 10,000 of their family members.

The U.S. Marshals Service oversees the program and their website states that to-date, no participants who have followed guidelines have been harmed or killed under their protection. Since 1971, society has seen computers become more advanced and the cell phone become a prominent piece of technology. Most importantly, we have seen an increasing need for people to be connected through the internet.

While many benefits come from connection, negatives such as data breaches, ad tracking, and unintentional photo sharing could potentially expose a protected witness. David Harlow of the U.S. Marshals Service is the Associate Director for Operations and states, “The modern world of technology, because there is more information out there, it’s that much more important for our people to be vigilant and for us to be vigilant.”

Online Glitches that Blow Covers

Ad Tracking

Witnesses are told to recreate themselves with a new name, face, and accounts for online use. Unfortunately, that does not always guarantee that there won’t be unwanted identification of a user. Director of Forensics at Secure Data said, “In theory, they don’t reuse old accounts but hobbies don’t change and interests don’t change.”

This proves problematic as Google Ads created a method called “Customer Match” in which advertisers target users by uploading their email addresses and applying them to a Search, Gmail, or Youtube campaign to create targeted experiences for the user. Google promises that they will only upload customer information they’ve obtained first-hand such as website forms, apps, and physical stores.

Ad tracking itself is embedded in every smartphone on the market to collect information about your spending habits at certain places of business, online dating matchups, and more. This information is bought and sold constantly, and can include personally identifiable information. In theory, there is no true way to stay under the radar if you use a connected device.

Social Media

Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have become an essential part of people’s lives and commentaries on the subject say rebuilding a life in the witness protection program without it could prove difficult.

It seems to be a lose-lose situation as someone who is very active on their profile and suddenly disappears proves suspicious, and even if someone doesn’t have a profile, there is a chance their family member or friend could post a photo of them on their profile. If someone is searching the internet for pictures of a witness, it is easy for them to find an old photo and match it to a previous account under an old name.

Since the United States, there are not any national data protection laws, and little regulation of the internet, law enforcement is not often successful in getting a social site to remove a profile.

Facial Recognition

While not technically an “online” threat, this authentication may still be a risk, even after plastic surgery. While some witnesses undergo plastic surgery to avoid being recognized, it may still not fool facial recognition systems. A study on this subject by researchers in India and West Virginia University found that major surgeries like skin resurfacing or surgery on the nose, chin, eyelids, lips, and forehead result in lower accuracy for the technology.

However, less extreme surgeries like ones on the ear have little effect on the recognition. The researchers’ suggestion was to include thermal indicators to be able to differentiate faces using a database of before and after images.

This would not bode well for witnesses, but for now, studies show that facial recognition may be a safe bet if reconstructive surgery was thorough. If the face stays the same, there is a chance that facial recognition software could find an old photo and match it to new ones that show people’s aliases and location.

Secrets, Secrets Are No Fun

Some insights into the Witness Security Program have been exposed such as participants sometimes keep their first name, payment to relocate is based on the cost of living in that area, or they can choose to leave. Overall, keeping identities a secret in the age of oversharing online proves to be a challenge. While the U.S. Marshals Service states no one has been harmed who followed the rules, cybercriminals have deep background skills that could disprove them quickly.

With the secrecy of the entire organization, there may never be a complete answer as to how these witnesses are affected. But as recent events of celebrities and political candidates being publicly shamed for social media posts from decades ago will prove, you can run, but you can’t hide. SecureData takes your privacy seriously as an SSAE 18 Type II Certified company. We have the strictest security standards within our labs as well as on our secure storage media. Learn about our security measures by calling (800) 520-1677.

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Laura Bednar

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