Israel Police's TikTok Unit taps into under-the-radar crime

"We are seeing a lot of people with no criminal background making videos of themselves carrying out crimes."

The Tiktok unit works in conjunction with police cyberunits that deal with general cybercrime (photo credit: ISRAEL POLICE)
The Tiktok unit works in conjunction with police cyberunits that deal with general cybercrime
(photo credit: ISRAEL POLICE)
While President Donald Trump is trying with all his might to make downloading the TikTok app illegal in the US, Israel Police are making good use of the popular short-video app to pinpoint where criminal activity took place and to bring the perpetrators to justice.
TikTok has become the hottest thing in the world of social media, especially among children and teens. But in the last year and a half, as Israelis increasingly began using it, it’s also inadvertently become a way to document crimes.
“We are seeing a lot of normative people, with no criminal background, who are making videos of themselves carrying out crimes and then uploading them to TikTok to increase the number of views and people who follow them. These people have no idea what they’re doing,” explains Gilad Hahn, who has been working as a police investigator for 21 years and has been part of the cybercrimes unit for the last decade.
“Nowadays, lots of kids, teenagers and even adults are posting videos of themselves on TikTok doing all sorts of dangerous or illegal things, such as engaging in traffic offenses, which encourage viewers to commit these offenses themselves. It gives them a feeling of legitimacy, which is creating a huge problem. It’s easy to catch and locate criminals, but it’s not so easy to find ordinary people with no criminal background.”
In April, the arrest of members of the “TikTok Gang” made headlines. The group was a bunch of reckless motorcycle riders who would upload videos of themselves doing all sorts of dangerous things, such as engaging in reckless driving while speeding along Negev roads. In August, during Eid al-Adha, the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice, a bunch of young people in the Bedouin town of Segev Shalom began shooting bullets into the air, which was quite terrifying for residents.
The entire incident was uploaded to TikTok, which helped police identify and later arrest four suspects. In another incident, some young men were filmed laughing while urinating on a police patrol car. The new TikTok unit even found videos of people documenting themselves selling drugs.
Due to the high number of such cases, Southern District Commander Supt. Yoram Sofer created Israel Police’s first TikTok unit, which is part of the Southern Intelligence Division, and whose goal is to invest all of its time and resources in stopping TikTok criminals. This unit, which focuses exclusively on crimes documented on TikTok, is working in conjunction with police cyberunits that deal with general cybercrime, including the Lahav 433 national crime unit and Unit 105, which helps prevent Internet crime involving minors.
“Here at the Intelligence Division, we are constantly doing research online in search of evidence that could be helpful in investigations,” says Cpl. “M,” the head of the unit, which was created just three months ago. “When we began looking at TikTok, we realized that a large number of people were uploading videos with disturbing content that were being viewed by a huge number of people before we were able to spot them. Once we started looking methodologically through the TikTok videos, we realized that fortunately we could gather a great amount of intel from them. As a result, the division commander decided to create this specialized unit to handle TikTok videos in an extremely focused and thorough manner, and hopefully play an important role in bringing criminals to justice.”
What exactly does your unit do?
“Our four-person team was created to monitor the Internet and locate crimes that have been committed. In addition, we have representatives at each police station in southern Israel that forward us any TikTok videos they come across containing criminal content. Israel Police can use that content in a number of ways: In some cases, we can reach out to units on the ground and guide them to acquire more intel that will help us progress in our research. We have access to all the many capabilities of Israel Police, in the field and with regards to criminal identification. I cannot go into much more detail, since this is proprietary information.
“We analyze every detail of the TikTok videos we come across and cross-check this data with lots of other variables and intel we gather using other methods. It can be a lengthy process. We spend two or three hours going through each video in an effort to identify the individuals involved. It can take up to a month or more before we gather all the information we need.”

What do you mean by problematic content?
“Selling and transporting illegal substances, sale and possession of weapons, traffic offenses, cruelty to animals, illegal hunting, underground nature parties operating without a permit, to name a few.”

Are most of these offenses carried out by young people, since that’s the main demographic using TikTok?
“Most of the videos involving hazardous driving and speeding offenses that appear on TikTok are uploaded by young men in their early twenties. But there are also plenty of incidents that are much more serious involving men in their thirties and forties. These usually revolve around the sale of drugs and weapons.”

The unit has only existed for three months. Are you starting to see results yet?
“Yes, absolutely. Our research and hard work have quickly aided a number of active investigations and even led to a few arrests. We are also using intel garnered from TikTok videos for other ongoing investigations. And we’ve already seen a decrease in the number of these types of videos being uploaded, since people are writing comments, such as ‘Be careful – the police are on to you.’
The TikTok unit is just one of many cyberunits using the Internet to prevent crime. It’s not like we’ve discovered America or something, but we are an important link in the chain of fighting crime, and if the efforts we make scouring through these TikTok videos can help us gather intel that will help the intelligence unit, then we are doing our bit to help.”

Can you provide an example of an investigation you were involved in?
“Sure. In June, we heard about a nature party that didn’t end well. After a tremendous amount of hard work analyzing videos, we succeeded in identifying the organizers, which was a huge help for the case. We were able to identify a drug smuggler who had not previously been known to the authorities. The fact that we are able to achieve so much by studying videos on the Internet is quite significant. My own kids watch TikTok videos and it is so distressing knowing that if it weren’t for TikTok, my children would not be exposed to such serious and problematic content.
“TikTok is the most powerful platform available today because the teens who use it are the ones setting policy. Advertisers and criminals understand this and that’s why they are making great efforts to show themselves there,” explains Hahn. “Hardcore criminals are trying to hide their identities by uploading fake profiles, which makes it more difficult to locate them. They’re using TikTok because it’s a great way for them to improve their ratings and increase views.”
Harel Menashri, head of cyber at the Holon Institute of Technology and one of the founders of the Shin Bet’s (Israel Security Agency) cyberunit, asks: “TikTok is a great format that can be used to reach huge numbers of people. The question is: How much money do you have in your budget and how hard are you willing to work?
“I believe that due to the deterrence that’s resulting from the fantastic work being done by the TikTok unit, criminals will very quickly switch over to using different applications that are less mainstream. The way criminals’ minds work is if they aren’t uploading the video depicting their criminal activity to TikTok so that they can get lots of views, it’s as if these events never took place at all. What they still haven’t picked up on is that these TikTok videos are what is enabling police to catch them.”
Hahn says the police needs to put as much emphasis on TikTok as possible. “Some criminals are active on TikTok, but not on any other social media. We need to be proactive, keep our finger on the pulse of criminal activity posted on this platform and establish a strong and continuous police presence there. I believe that the new TikTok unit will lead Israel Police to bring about a significant decrease in the criminal activity that is available for viewing on TikTok.” 

Translated by Hannah Hochner.