Facebook Data Aiding Federal Agencies During Investigations

    July 12, 2011
    Josh Wolford

Remember when that idiot posted all the illegal stuff that he did during the Vancouver riots on Facebook? That idiot was Brock Anton and he posted such gems as “flipped some cars” and “burnt some some cop cars” on Facebook in the aftermath of the heavy rioting.

That’s one (relatively simplistic) way that Facebook can aid in law enforcement. Want to know the other way?

The way that doesn’t involve drunk hockey hooligans has to do with U.S. agencies, federal judges, warrants and something called a “neoprint.” According to Reuters, Federal agencies are relying more and more on data collected from Facebook to aid in their law-enforcement operations.

In the past few years, there has been an increase in warrants granted by Federal judges to agencies like the FBI, DEA and ICE to conduct “Facebook searches” of people’s social data.

What kind of juicy information can Facebook provide to the FBI? Just your private messages, statuses, event calendars, photos, wall posts and even rejected friend requests. Manuals exist for law-enforcement agencies to learn the proper way to request such information from Facebook, assuming a warrant has been issued. The terms that describe these sets of user data are called “Neoprints” and “Photoprints” according to Reuters.

Basically those are detailed packets of user info, containing everything that I outlined above and more.

Reuters reviewed the Westlaw legal database and determined that since 2008, at least a couple dozen warrants have been granted to get a specific user’s information from Facebook. And in 2011, at least 11 warrants have already been authorized, double the amount that were authorized last year. That means that the practice may be becoming more popular within the law-enforcement community (at least at a federal level).

And even more interesting perhaps than the info-grabbing itself is the fact that the people whose info is being grabbed are not being notified by Facebook.

From Reuters –

None of the warrants discovered in the review have been challenged on the grounds that it violated a person’s Fourth Amendment protection against unlawful search and seizure, according to a review of the cases.

Some constitutional-law experts said the Facebook searches may not have been challenged because the defendants – not to mention their “friends” or others whose pages might have been viewed as part of an investigation — never knew about them.

By law, neither Facebook nor the government is obliged to inform a user when an account is subject to a search by law enforcement, though prosecutors are required to disclose material evidence to a defendant.

Basically this all boils down to a privacy issue, involving the Fourth Amendment protection against illegal searches and seizures. Do these warrants violate that right in some way?

A 1970’s Supreme Court ruling determined that third parties need not notify people when they turn over records to federal agencies. That case was The United States v. Miller and it involved a bank as the third party and the ATF as the federal agency.

But now social media is the third party, and that opens up a whole new can of constitutional worms. Given, none of this should be too shocking to anyone. We’ve known for quite some time that if complete privacy is something you treasure, Facebook is probably not the thing for you.

What do you think about this issue of privacy? Should law-enforcement be able to “search” Facebook like they can search your place of residence with a warrant? Let us know how you feel.


Josh Wolford
Josh Wolford is a writer for WebProNews. He likes beer, Japanese food, and movies that make him feel weird afterward. Mostly beer. Follow him on Twitter: @joshgwolf Instagram: @joshgwolf Google+: Joshua Wolford StumbleUpon: joshgwolf