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Using GPS and Social Media in Community Corrections

Location tracking technology is now an everyday tool. Mapping apps on our phones use it to give us directions. Businesses use it to deliver ads to our phones when we are nearby. Weather apps use it to alert us when a dangerous storm is heading our way.

Our social media apps may also track our locations. Depending on what or how often we post on social media, our accounts can reveal a lot about where we go, what we do and with whom we do it.

Some community corrections agencies are using both social media and devices using Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to monitor individuals on pretrial release, probation and parole. Two recent issue papers from our partner, the American Probation and Parole Association, explore the benefits and drawbacks of using these technologies to monitor the activities and whereabouts of clients.

Location Tracking Systems

A small but growing number of community corrections agencies are putting GPS technology to work tracking high-risk individuals on pretrial release, probation and parole. A survey by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that about 88,000 GPS units were being used for supervision of clients in 2015—only a small fraction of the 4.6 million people on probation or parole.

Location tracking systems (LTS) can use GPS, cell tower triangulation, Wi-Fi or other means to track and report location. Corrections officials can use LTS to track compliance with exclusion zones (places where the individual cannot go, such as near a victim’s home) and inclusion zones (such as the individual’s home or workplace during specified times of day). Of course, these zones are only as effective as the response to violations. Supervision officers using LTS have a responsibility to quickly contact law enforcement in the event of a violation that may jeopardize victim safety.

In its recent issue brief, Incorporating Location Tracking Systems Into Community Supervision, the APPA found that, although there is little research on the effectiveness of LTS at deterring future crimes, there are a few studies that show decreased recidivism and improved compliance with the conditions of supervision. The APPA says LTS can also be used “to assist client reentry and community adjustment through the application of structure.” LTS can help to enforce a strict, pre-approved schedule and thereby establish the structure and accountability needed to “help clients develop a different, more productive and prosocial lifestyle.”

Of course, LTS has limits. Technical challenges can include poor cellular coverage, signal drift and solar flares that disrupt GPS signals. And because LTS is “a relatively intrusive supervision tool,” the APPA recommends that its use be reserved for higher-risk clients and for lower-risk individuals who would otherwise be confined.

Social Media Tracking

Another recent issue paper by the APPA, The Use of Social Media as a Supervision Tool, looks at the issues community corrections agencies should consider before implementing social media monitoring of clients.

As part of an investigation to inform decisions on pretrial release, sentencing or juvenile court dispositions, agencies may review an individual’s social media posts to get a more accurate understanding of their activities and attitudes. Social media may reveal “whether the person is truly remorseful for conduct, whether the person is being honest about a substance abuse problem or a gang association, and whether the person has disclosed complete and accurate information about all assets.”

Monitoring social media as part of general supervision can expose similar information and even reveal new criminal activity. Individuals may post threats, upload photos or videos of themselves with firearms, or brag about a criminal act. Social media monitoring may be especially important for managing and supervising sex offenders, whose social media or internet use may be restricted as a condition of their release.

However, officers should never take a picture or written post on social media at face value. It is crucial that they always verify the information with another reliable source. Verification should occur before submitting social media information to the court for decision-making purposes on bail, sentencing or violations or revocations, as well as before the implementation of administrative sanctions by a supervision officer.

The Global Justice Information Sharing Initiative released Developing a Policy on the Use of Social Media in Intelligence and Investigative Activities: Guidance and Recommendations in 2013, which outlines three levels of engagement for corrections officials regarding social media monitoring:

  1. Apparent/Overt Use: Accessing what is open or public on an individual’s social media profiles without interacting with the individual
  2. Discrete Use: Using tools, such as proxy servers and fictitious identities, to disguise the correction official’s identity without direct online interaction with the individual
  3. Covert Use: Engaging directly with the client to gain information or evidence while concealing the correction official’s identity

The APPA identifies a fourth investigative method—Review with Client Supervision. This involves reviewing the client’s social media profiles with their permission and perhaps with them present. Corrections officials may get permission from the client to briefly connect with them on social media so the official can review their contacts, posts and photos. Alternatively, the official may require a client to access their social media accounts in the official’s presence, which would reveal both public and private information.


The APPA stresses the importance of administrators developing strong policies before using LTS or social media as part of their agency’s supervision efforts. Doing so will help an agency manage risk, allocate resources and ensure that any data gathered is used properly. Further, supervision officers should be familiar with and adhere to their agency’s policies regarding the use of LTS or social media. Compliance with such policies may protect officers against professional or personal liability claims.

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