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Police look at what information is public and sometimes create fake online identities to befriend suspects and view their private information. Authorities also can request private data directly from social networks with subpoenas or warrants, or make an emergency request for user information if they think there's an imminent threat of danger.
These techniques are slowly catching on across the country. According to a recent survey of 1,221 federal, state and local law enforcement who use social media, four out of five officials used social media to gather intelligence during investigations. Half said they checked social media at least once a week, and the majority said social media helps them solve crimes faster. The online survey was conducted by LexisNexis Risk Solutions and had a 2.8% margin of error.
The survey found that Facebook is the most fruitful social network for law enforcement, followed by YouTube.
The NSW police commissioner says it's not easy for authorities to pursue and punish so-called trolls who post abusive, bullying comments online under the cover of anonymity.
Andrew Scipione says online wars of words, like the vicious Twitter exchanges that have put TV personality Charlotte Dawson in hospital, can be devastating to bullying victims and their loved ones.
'We've been watching this happening over recent years, we know that this does cause enormous grief to families, to those that are the subject of attacks,' Mr Scipione told reporters in Sydney on Friday.
The incident has led the national crisis support service Lifeline to question the diligence of social media in monitoring cyber-bullying, and the federal coalition has called for changes to laws to better protect people from harassment.