Status: BUSTED! How the Police Could Read Your Facebook Posts

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Did you know that law enforcement agencies, or other governmental entities, may be able to acquire the data you’ve posted on Facebook or Twitter, even if you aren’t “friends” with any police officers or don’t count government employees among your followers?


Law enforcement officials may be turning to social media when they have a suspect in a crime they are investigating.  Information found on sites such as Facebook or Twitter can give police information about what a suspect looks like, where that person spends a lot of time, and who they spend their time with.  And while sites like Facebook provide fairly good privacy protections, not everyone is aware of them.  And others actually choose not to use them, allowing their information to be available to the public.  Even those who would normally ensure that their information is private sometimes don’t realize that their own settings don’t cover all of their actions.  For example, “events” created on Facebook are often public, as is the list of those who are attending.  And if you post on a friend’s wall or comment on a friend’s status or photo, their privacy settings – not yours – control who can see that post.  Information that is publicly available may be accessed by law enforcement with no action other than logging on to the site.


According to federal law, police agencies or other government entities that want “private” on-line information held by a third-party (in these cases, sites such as Facebook, Twitter, MySpace) must obtain an order from either a state or federal court to get certain information such as your e-mail address, phone numbers (including mobile) and contact information you registered with Facebook, or when you created your Facebook profile.  Law enforcement may also wish to seek more information about you, such as your status update history, your wall posts, a list of your “friends,” a list of the Facebook Groups you administer or belong to, videos you’ve uploaded or been “tagged” in, photos you’ve uploaded or been “tagged” in, your IP address, or Private Messages retained in your message box.  An IP (internet protocol) address is a unique locator that can be used to identify a specific computer.  In order to obtain this more in-depth information, law enforcement must obtain a search warrant.  In order to do that, they must first show a court that they have what is called “probable cause” that the information they are requesting will in some way aid them in an investigation.


While most online social media sites have been advocates for limiting government access to the information they hold, they still have to comply with the law.  The Facebook Data Use Policy states, “[w]e may share your information in response to a legal request (like a search warrant, court order or subpoena) if we have a good faith belief that the law requires us to do so.”  This means that, if the police or any government agency believes the content of your Facebook page could aid them in an investigation, that entity can seek a court order allowing them to access the information on your Facebook page without your permission or knowledge.  And you have already agreed to this, because the Data Use Policy is part of the Facebook User Agreement, which is called the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.  The Statement says, “[b]y using or accessing Facebook, you agree to this statement.”  That means that every member of Facebook agreed to the Facebook User Agreement just by signing up for an account.  Accepting this agreement is also their notice to you that this type of action is a possibility, so they don’t have to notify you if, or when, they are served with an order for your information.


It may sound like something that would only happen on Law & Order, but according to a Reuters article published in 2011, more than two dozen warrants to search individual’s Facebook pages have been issued by federal judges in the last three years.  While these numbers do not mean that searching Facebook has become an everyday law enforcement tool, you should still be aware that the mechanism is available to them.  By taking a look at Facebook’s policy on compliance with legal requests we can see that information from as far back as 90 days before the request can be obtained with a search warrant.  The information that can be obtained once enforcement officials have a warrant might include access to your friends list – including friend requests you have rejected, private messages, photos, wall posts, records of events you have attended in the past or are planning to attend in the future, and the location information attached to any of these.  If information is obtained legally, using a properly obtained search warrant, then it can be used in court.


Another popular website, Twitter, has a lot of members, though not as many as Facebook.  On Twitter members may post “tweets,” which are 140 character messages that are essentially status updates.  These tweets then go out to those members who “follow” the person tweeting, but tweets generally can also be accessed by anyone with a Twitter account.  Twitter also makes quite a bit of user information available to the general public.  According to Twitter’s Privacy Policy, publicly available information includes your profile image, background image, and tweets, along with any metadata (information such as where, when and how the post was created) associated with those tweets. In addition, the user has the option to share their location, a URL (or “link”), and “bio” information about themselves.  This information is generally public as well.  Tweets and user names are also searchable, so if you have an account in your name, anyone who uses a search engine to try to find out more about you is likely to come across your Twitter account, and your tweets.  Again, everything in this policy is something that you agree to by signing up for a Twitter account.


Twitter does, however, protect information that you mark as “private,” or available only to “followers.”  In their Privacy Policy, Twitter states, “[w]e may preserve or disclose your information if we believe that it is reasonably necessary to comply with a law, regulation or legal request; to protect the safety of any person; to address Glossary Link fraud, security or technical issues; or to protect Twitter's rights or property.”  But compliance with the law means that law enforcement or government officials must obtain a court order or search warrant authorizing them to seek private information before they can get it.  And Twitter has a policy of notifying their member of the information being sought, unless they are prohibited from doing so by the law or the court.  But by the time you hear about it, Twitter will have already complied with the request and your information will be in the hands of the officials seeking it.


Other social media sites and websites around the internet have their own policies, but these are fairly representative of how most sites operate.  Most of us don’t think twice about posting personal information on these sites.  Many of us think social networking sites are safe because they provide some measure of security.  Some think that the only ones who can see what they are doing are those they have labeled “friends.”  But the bottom line is that once your information is on the web, it can very easily – and without your knowledge – leave your control.  Law enforcement can obtain access to your information, whether or not you allow it, and generally without your knowledge.  Always think twice about anything you post on the internet.


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