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How authorities investigate cyber threats

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Harrisburg Police say a social media threat shut down schools within the Harrisburg School District today.

Officials say the school district is working with police and information will be released as it becomes verified and available.

FOX43 contacted Pennsylvania State Police and a cyber security instructor to learn how these cases are investigated.

Officials say the investigations require time, manpower, and money, and every threat must be taken seriously.

When a cyber threat is directed towards a school, Pennsylvania State Police say there’s two things law enforcement must find out.

"Our goal is to find the legitimacy of the threat and who is making them," said Corporal Adam Reed, communication with Pennsylvania State Police.

Corporal Reed says every threat is taken seriously. Once an investigation starts, he says law enforcement must decide if State Police should intervene or if the investigation demands federal attention, such as the FBI.

"We have the manpower and the technological resources to perhaps, trace back that IP address from where the threat was made or gain access to find out the identity of that user on social media," said Cpl. Reed.

Cpl. Reed says police must receive a search warrant to look at someone's social media accounts, and only specific information listed in the warrant can be obtained.

Law enforcement must work with internet providers in these cases.

According to Ron Jones, a cyber security instructor at Harrisburg University, almost always law enforcement can identify the person making the threats.

"Everybody leaves a digital fingerprint. The question is how much money, resources, and people power, do you have to follow that trail back?" said Jones.

Jones says those digital fingerprints usually lead police to a library, a school, or the suspect’s home. Even if someone deletes information on a computer, it’s never truly gone.

"They can go in and do a forensics analysis on that computer and look at all the activity, the files, what was created on the computer, what web pages were accessed, when they were accessed, and who logged in," said Jones.

Jones says law enforcement have to trace threats to a computer and then piece together any physical evidence - such as, did a camera capture the person on the computer, who was in the building when the computer was used, etc.

If someone makes a threat on a cell phone, he says that person is almost always going to be caught.

"It probably has the most evidence or fingerprints that you can imagine," he said.

As for leads, law enforcement rely on tips from people in the community .

"We're not all-knowing. We don’t have an all-encompassing presence to watch every social media post that is made. Without their help and contribution, we may potentially not know about the threat so if you see something, please say something," stressed Cpl. Reed.

The threat directed at schools within the Harrisburg School District is one of more than a dozen directed towards schools in Central Pennsylvania this week. The big message, if you see something, say something.

According to Reed, a minor can face felony charges for making cyber threats.