by Sarah Blalock
Think that all your Facebook posts, Twitter tweets, and Myspace updates could never cause you any trouble? Think again.
Thanks to the recent release during a lawsuit of several internal documents from the United States Justice Department and the Internal Revenue Service, we now know that the government is using social networking sites to investigate cases of all types. According to an recent article in the Detroit Free Press by Associated Press writer Richard Lardner (http://freep.com/article/20100316/NEWS09/100316040/1320/Careful-New-Facebook-friend-might-be-the-feds), agents are even going so far as to go undercover on these online sites in order to gather information about suspects or witnesses in criminal cases.
While this is something that may just now be becoming public knowledge, the fact that law enforcement officers look to social networking sites such as Facebook, Myspace and Twitter to assist in their investigations is old news to those of us who defend people involved in computer-related crimes. In fact, here at the Law Offices of Raymond A. Cassar, it is standard procedure for us to ask our new clients about their accounts on social networking sites, in order to be best prepared to handle their cases. It is almost a given in this day and age that the prosecutor and police will be searching for our clients’ Facebook pages to see if they contain any incriminating evidence.
Government agents, probation officers, and prosecutors can either go undercover by submitting a “friend request” on sites like Facebook, or by “following” a person on Twitter. Once the agent is accepted as a friend or follower, they will have full access to the person’s page, and any posts or photos there. Agents can pose as underage girls or boys in order to catch a person they believe is an online predator, or they can seek out photos of a person engaged in illegal activity such as drug use or underage alcohol use. Often, agents don’t even need to go undercover – they simply have to click on the person’s social networking page. Once they do, if the page is not set to private, they have access to a virtual goldmine of personal information. Even if one’s profile IS set to private, police and probation officers may be able to access their information through a friend’s page that isn’t private – it all depends on how diligently they are willing to search.
In Michigan, the use of social networking sites for this type of investigation is of particular note. If prosecutors can tie the commission of a crime to a person’s computer use, the penalties are even higher than they would be if that crime were committed “in the real world.” Use of a Computer to Commit a Crime is a common felony charge in Michigan that can apply to all types of criminal cases – from Solicitation of a Minor to Fraud charges. Use of a Computer to Commit a Crime can drastically raise the stakes and the potential penalties for anyone who is charged with that offense in conjunction with any other criminal charge.
Perhaps one of the most disturbing things about this new trend is that so many people feel “safe” online on social networking websites. Because they have to approve or deny “friend requests,” many people generally feel that the information they are posting will only be disseminated to people they know and trust. Lardner’s article, however, is a harsh reminder that when you are online, you are never truly private.
So the next time you think about updating your Facebook status, or posting a new Tweet, think very carefully about what you are about to say. “Big Brother” could be watching…
Sarah Blalock is an attorney at the Law Offices of Raymond A. Cassar, a Detroit Area Criminal Defense firm. Mr. Cassar has twenty years of experience in State & Federal Court. His office is happy to give advice regarding criminal matters. You may learn more about Attorney Raymond Cassar and Attorney Sarah Blalock by visiting : http://www.crimlawattorney.com/