Instagram Video Appears to Show a Crime, But Did it Really?

— Charges Dropped Due to Video Forensics Analysis by NCAVF
— Facts Were Missed by Attorneys On Both Sides

The video evidence appeared damning. The prosecution relied on an Instagram video to prove its case, hoping to send the defendant away for years. But was the video what it seemed? The defense team hired NCAVF to analyze the video, and what our experts found changed the course of a client’s life.

Video evidence plays a huge role in courts, and the level of trust given to that evidence can affect whether someone walks free or winds up behind bars.

In a recent case that came to our firm, expert analysis was crucial. The video evidence appeared to be a sexually explicit recording of a minor. The minor allegedly recorded it herself and sent it via text to her boyfriend, who forwarded the video to an unknown third party. The defendant got a hold of a copy and posted it to Instagram. The alleged victim saw the video she believed showed her on Instagram and played the video for her father. Her father recorded the Instagram video from a computer screen using his cell phone and then called police. The responding officer took out his own cell phone and recorded the video from the father’s cell phone.

The National Center for Audio and Video Forensics (NCAVF) was called by the defense to analyze the video recorded by the investigating officer. We immediately saw that the video was problematic.

The evidence the officer created was the video of a video of a video that someone had posted to Instagram, and because of this the video had degraded substantially from those multiple generations of record and playback and record and playback and record.

When a device is used to record a screen playing another video, the quality of the new video is degraded. And when a device is used to text video to a second device, the video is often compressed and details lost. In this case, the degradation and compression was compounded by multiple recordings and texts. Had the officer extracted the video from the father’s cell phone instead of taking a recording of it, one layer of degradation could have been avoided. That was sloppy police work, and the result is that the evidence made it difficult to use in court.

The quality was so poor that it was not possible to testify that the female in the video was the minor female involved in this case.

NCAVF expert Motti Gabler noticed something else when analyzing the video that hadn’t been noticed by attorneys or the DA in the case; the video was not one continuous video, but multiple separate videos, with what seemed to be two different females in different locations. The video seemed to start and stop, and the lighting, background, and quality appeared differently in different portions of the recording, each showing a different female.

What appeared to be one video was in fact at least two separate videos stitched or played together.

During the preliminary hearing, Gabler testified that the low quality of the video meant that faces couldn’t be identified or compared. In addition, the video’s veracity was suspicious because after multiple recordings of a screen of a screen of a screen, the evidence (and the metadata) had been dramatically altered.

Our client faced years behind bars because of the serious nature of the charges and because he was already on probation for an unrelated assault.

A few weeks after the preliminary hearing, the DA dropped the charges.

Digital evidence is now an integral element of court and trials. It’s more important than ever to understand this evidence is not necessarily what it seems.

Attorneys must allocate time to evaluate their clients’ digital evidence because that is the only way to understand details of a case, to respond intelligently in court, and to allow their clients’ trials to proceed fairly.

David Notowitz is the founder and lead forensic expert for NCAVF, the National Center for Audio and Video Forensics. His analysis, reports, and testimony has been utilized in criminal and civil courts, federal and state, and mediation and administrative hearings across the United States. His team recovers, evaluates, and prepares digital media evidence including video, audio, cell phone data, and hard drive files.