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Implementing Social Networking into Law Enforcement Ops: Criminal Investigations

Written by Cara Donlon-Cotton

        Social networking sites can provide a bevy of information for the criminal investigator - if you don't give up when your initial search attempts are thwarted by good privacy settings. Recent court cases (specifically, Romano v. Steelcase Inc., N.Y.S.2d, 2010 WL 3703242 (N.Y. Sup. September 21, 2010) have reaffirmed that users of social networking sites really have no expectation of privacy.

        In ruling against plaintiff Romano, the court said users of social networking sites are aware their personal information will be shared with others, as that is the very nature of such sites.

        Thus, when Plaintiff created her Facebook and MySpace accounts, she consented to the fact that her personal information would be shared with others, notwithstanding her privacy settings. Indeed, that is the very nature and purpose of these social networking sites else they would cease to exist.

        Since Plaintiff knew that her information may become publicly available, she cannot now claim that she had a reasonable expectation of privacy. As recently set forth by commentators regarding privacy and social networking sites, given the millions of users, "[i]n this environment, privacy is no longer grounded in reasonable expectations, but rather in some theoretical protocol better known as wishful thinking."

        Clearly, if a person posts something to a public social networking site, the fruits of those postings are fair game for anyone - including a law enforcement investigator.

        Social networking sites can provide a wealth of investigative information, including detailed personal communications, establishment of motives, proof of relationships, location confirmations, alibi analysis, proof of criminal activities, photo identification and, sometimes, flat-out confessions.

        There are ways for law enforcement to gather information from social networking sites, either by retrieving it themselves or by officially requesting information from the site providers, namely by using the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA - most commonly associated with wiretapping rules).

        If you are going to use the ECPA and follow the established rules for subpoenas (each social networking site provides instructions for law enforcement on how to collect information officially), then the usual standards apply, i.e., have a case number, have signed paper ready, have an emergency, etc. But if you're just going to see what's publicly available - go for it! You'd be surprised how much intel and evidence are posted on the pages of suspects, witnesses and even victims.

        And just because your person of interest doesn't have anything available to the public eye, that doesn't mean his friends haven't left a trail for you to follow. The key to a good social networking investigation is to click, click, click. Click on each friend and family member that would be germane to the case - Facebook lets your filter friends by name, hometown, current city, school, workplace, etc. It makes it a lot easier to sort through those 757 friends when you can narrow it down to those who all work for the same company or attend the same school.

        Remember, too, that even if the target's social networking site is private that doesn't mean a security loophole doesn't exist. For example, a private photo album can be accessed if a non-private friend comments on just a single picture. Or, a non-private friend comments on a wall posting on Facebook - that could easily make that thread publicly available. All the more reason to click, click, click.

        The next column - using social networking during critical incidents.

Cara Donlon-Cotton is a former course developer and instructor with the Georgia Public Safety Training Center . She currently teaches a variety of media relations and social networking classes to local law enforcement agencies. She can be reached at cdonloncotton@yahoo.com or through the Public Safety Training Education Network at http://psten.com/.

Published in Law and Order, Jun 2012

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