A recently released document shows how U.S. federal investigators are using Facebook — and MySpace, LinkedIn and Twitter — to gather evidence and uncover suspects’ private information
Organizations are training their IRS, legal staff and enforcement how to bring the criminals in to confess to their illegal activities. Gone will be the days of stunting illegal activity on the popular social networking websites. The U.S. federal government actively uses the likes of Facebook, MySpace and Twitter to gather evidence on criminals. The documents show the U.S. federal government uses sites like Facebook, Myspace and Twitter to snoop around during criminal investigations.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation scraped up hard proof of the Uncle Sam’s social networking habits by filing a Freedom of Information request, receiving documents it published online on Tuesday, including a 2009 training course for the IRS [PDF] and a Department of Justice presentation [PDF].
The 33-page document shows that law enforcement agents from local police to the FBI and Secret Service have been logging on to MySpace and other sites undercover to communicate with suspects, read private postings and view photos and videos that are restricted to a user’s friends.
According to the presentation, social networks can be used by government workers to reveal personal communications, establish motives and personal relationships, provide location information, prove and disprove alibis, establish crime or criminal enterprise, and to witness instrumentalities or fruits of crime.
The document says evidence from social networking sites can:
The document shows that U.S. agents are logging on surreptitiously to exchange messages with suspects, identify a target’s friends or relatives and browse private information such as postings, personal photographs and video clips.
Among the purposes: Investigators can check suspects’ alibis by comparing stories told to police with tweets sent at the same time about their whereabouts. Online photos from a suspicious spending spree — people posing with jewelry, guns or fancy cars — can link suspects or their friends to crime.
Although the IRS training course makes it clear that workers are not to assume false identities in the pursuit of personal information, the DoJ documents paint of much vaguer picture of what is and is not legally admissible when fishing social networks for evidence. One line asks, “If agents violate terms of service, is that ‘otherwise illegal activity’?” without providing an answer
What this means is if your is stunting and bragging about how you stole someone’s property, posted a picture of yourself holding a bench warrant, and beat up the neighbor don’t be surprise when the undercover cyber police shows up at your door with handcuffs. It is going to become extremely difficult to defend yourself against legal activities when your sitting their with a posted picture and a tweet boasting about the illegal activity that you thought you got away undetected.
“This new situation presents a need for careful oversight so that law enforcement does not use social networking to intrude on some of our most personal relationships,” said Marc Zwillinger, a former federal prosecutor told the news outlet.
The document also discusses the value to prosecutors of using social networking sites to obtain information on the background of defense witnesses, though it cautions that the same sites could be “potential pitfalls” in that defense attorneys could also use them to background prosecution witnesses.
In the offline world, agents involved in an investigation can’t impersonate a suspect’s spouse, child, parent or best friend, the Associated Press notes. But online they can.