Federal Agents Walking the Social-Networking Beat

Published April 9, 2010

Most Facebook users get a friend request from a stranger from time to time. It’s common knowledge the request may have been sent by a spammer.

Here’s something that’s not so commonly known: A federal agent may have sent you a friend request. And the feds don’t need a warrant if you unwittingly open up your online life to the government.

Federal and state law-enforcement agents are increasingly visiting Facebook, MySpace, and other social-networking sites to aid their legal investigations and surveillance activities. Agents go undercover to dig up information from suspects’ and witnesses’ online profiles. Agents can also request the needed information directly from the Web sites’ administrators.

Feds’ Training Docs
“Evidence from social networking sites can reveal personal communications, establish motives and personal relationships, provide location information, prove and disprove alibis, and establish crime or criminal enterprise,” states a March 10, 2010 slideshow presentation the United States Department of Justice produced for its personnel.

The presentation singles out Facebook as “often cooperative with emergency requests.” MySpace, LinkedIn, and Twitter are other sources police frequent for online investigative work.

Underage Drinkers Caught
Facebook proved handy for police in LaCrosse, Wisconsin who created a fake profile impersonating a female college student and sent friend requests to students at the University of Wisconsin.

Many of the students accepted, unwittingly granting the police access to their profiles—where the students had posted photographs of themselves engaging in underage drinking. Eight students received court citations and fines costing $200 to $300.

“Just as we’ve done successfully in identifying and prosecuting child predators online, we will continue to use publicly available information individuals post online about their illegal activities or false statements to law-enforcement officials in our investigations,” said Laura E. Sweeney, a public affairs specialist for the Department of Justice. “To do otherwise would be negligence on our part.”

Precedent for Penalties
Penalizing individuals for content they post in online profiles has precedents outside of law enforcement. East Stroudsburg University suspended one of its sociology professors after she posted facetious comments on her Facebook page about wanting to kill her students.

Job searchers, too, can incur trouble for their profile content. Companies evaluating applicants for positions increasingly scan Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn during their background checks.

“They check all sorts of open-source materials to protect themselves, to make sure this person is who he or she claims to be,” said Chris Farrell, director of research at Judicial Watch. “And during the search, they might find comments or pictures that suggest maybe this person doesn’t have the best professional judgment.” 

What You Post Sticks
In this electronic age, users have to expect the words and pictures they post online will follow them, Farrell notes. If a user would rather some material stay hidden, he or she had best not put it on a Web page.

“When you post it up on the Internet, it’s free to the world to see,” Farrell said. “You have no expectation of privacy whatsoever. That’s critical.”

That’s why Farrell has little sympathy for users who complain when they incur legal trouble for information they posted on a social-networking site.

User Responsibility
Users, he notes, have a responsibility to refrain from committing crimes, much less brag on a public Web domain about committing them.

“What people get upset with is when they’re caught being stupid,” Farrell said. “That’s when you hear sudden claims of ‘my rights were violated.’ What happened was you were caught being stupid in the ‘No-Stupid Zone.’ “

Many Facebook and MySpace users safeguard their profiles from other users via privacy settings that restrict access only to profile “friends.” But these settings do not keep the eyes of the government out.

No Warrant Necessary
Marcia Hofmann, senior attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, emphasized if federal agents want information, they have the means to get it.

“If the feds issue a legitimate subpoena or warrant, I’m sure that Facebook would likely comply. They have to,” Hofmann said.

In fact, federal agents might not even need the documents at all. If the agents promise the Internet company they will deliver the legal documents later, sometimes that suffices.

“Under certain circumstances the law allows the police to go to an ISP and say, ‘we’re dealing with an emergency situation and we’d appreciate it if you would help us out here so we can take care of this quickly,’ ” she said. 

Failed to Follow Up
Hofmann expressed concerns, however, that the needed legal documents to approve a search do not always get delivered. She cited allegations the FBI requested information from telephone companies and promised to “follow up with the proper legal processes” but never did.

“That’s something that I tend to think of when I read on this slide that ‘Facebook is very cooperative,’ ” she said.

Still, she too places the onus of responsibility on social-network users to be mindful of what they put in their profiles. What they say can—and will—be used against them.

“When you have a locked profile, you tend to think you’re speaking to a very closed group of people. You have to accept that anything you post could be seen by other people, including law enforcement,” she said.

Rick Docksai ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.