Sunday, September 11, 2011

Confessions of a Facebook Stalker

Friend requests, posts, pictures, tags, and likes. Have you ever thought about how much personal information you are putting online without thinking you are doing so?

As I prosecutor, I love and hate facebook. I love it because my defendants (especially the juveniles) cannot help but post incriminating pictures of themselves or leave status updates about the crime committed. I hate it because my witnesses cannot help it either and defense attorneys are checking it just as much as I am.

Facebook plays a significant role in cross-examination. I have cross-examined a defendant who denied any gang affiliation by showing him tagged photos of him flashing gang signs or a defendant who denied knowing the victim until confronted with a photo of the two of them we recovered from the internet. How about the time the defendant denied dealing drugs or ever holding a gun? Turns out there was a photo of the defendant holding a gun, smoking a joint, and flashing hundreds online.

Now for why Facebook and its progeny scares me - our willingness to forego privacy. It starts simply enough, as reported by yahoo. A "friend" requests you. You accept thinking you know him or her. Suddenly, the "friend" has access to all your friends, who your family members are, your birthday, the area you live in, what you like, and social causes you endorse. Why not just leave your social security number too? What more does a person need?

It can happen many ways. Your friend asks you for a donation to a cause he now knows you support. Turns out the cause doesn't exist after you donate. Your friend could suggest an investment opportunity like the article suggests. Your friend could find your friends and family members who are susceptible to scams through you. What about your status update about leaving for vacation? Whoever you're connected to knows your house will be unoccupied for a week. There are a million different ways a criminal can use your information and we see them everyday in the headlines.

A few common sense tips:
1) Don't accept friend requests from people you don't know.
2) Don't post anything about an event, until it's already happened.
3) Keep your privacy settings as private as possible. Only allow friends to see your pages.
4) Teach your children about privacy and the dangers of the internet. Once it's posted, it's there forever. (Hope this blog never comes back to hurt me).
5) Don't invest any money without meeting someone face to face and getting the opinion of a certified professional.
6) In case you're wondering, I do have a Facebook account. I don't label any of my family members as such though and I suggest you follow that lead.

Does anyone have stories about their privacy invaded? What are some other tips for our readers they should know about maintaining privacy online?


  1. I've always wondered how law enforcement or news media gets these incriminating materials? Do you guys have a subpoena? Access from someone who is "friends" with the person or does the person in question leave their page public? I've tried accessing my page from different computers without signing in just to see how much I could see without being a friend and I can never get anything except my profile picture. By the way, you are totally right. Even with my FB friends I try to limit what I put out there!

  2. We start with checking whether the page is public, which it usually is. If it's not, or if we need some certified documents, we subpoena if we believe there is something there to aid in the investigation. If one of my witnesses is friends with the suspect, we use the witness to access the page. I haven't used twitter in a case yet, but I'm sure that day is coming.

  3. Thanks for that! That answers my questions. There was a case recently in the news here in Philadelphia where someone posted their intentions to murder someone else on Facebook! It made me wonder how the police and prosecutors were able to access that kind of thing. Glad that they can!