Social Networking Surveillance? Law Enforcement Use of Facebook, Twitter et al.

by | Feb 10, 2014 | Criminal Law

Please note that this is not legal advice.  See our disclaimer.

If you have used Twitter for any length of time, you know that it started out as a way for people to answer a simple question: What are you doing now? It soon became a way for friends and family to maintain a sense of connection, and for celebrity followers to keep tabs on what their favorite personalities were up to. Now, however, law enforcement officials have started to use social marketing tools to gather information or locate suspects.

What forms does it take? Here are just a few examples:

  • Police investigators have created false profiles on Facebook and MySpace, and then asked to be a friend of a suspect, all in an effort to gather evidence in an ongoing criminal investigation.
  • Detectives have used social marketing sites, such as Twitter, to establish a suspect’s location, identify hangouts, or verify relationships
  • Police have used social marketing tools to establish motives or prove/disprove alibis
  • The IRS has used Google maps to view property to determine whether a deduction seems appropriate
  • Civil Litigation law firms use Facebook and MySpace to verify testimony of witnesses before and during trial

What are your rights? Unfortunately, not many. As long as the information is publicly available on a website like Facebook, LinkedIn or MySpace, law enforcement officers have free and unfettered access to it. In certain circumstances, under a showing of probable cause, police may even be able to demand that site owners allow them access to private data.

Law enforcement officers have started going undercover on social media sites, but must obtain the cooperation of the sites to have full access to information. The major social marketing sites take different stances when dealing with police or investigators. MySpace has created a law enforcement guide and a 24 hour hotline to assist such investigations. Facebook tends to enforce privacy laws and challenges requests that it believes violate the laws. Twitter will only provide information to law enforcement officers pursuant to a subpoena or legal process.

What should you do? If you are under investigation for or have been charged with a crime, you may want to pull down any social marketing sites you have. However, be aware that anything you post online can never truly be erased. You should always tell your lawyer about things that may have been posted in the past. Otherwise, you simply need to consider yourself warned. Law enforcement officers may be following you. Additionally, if you are a parent with children who use Facebook or Twitter, you should talk to them about what they post and warn them of the dangers.

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