Friday, August 31, 2012

The Cautionary Instruction: Investigators use Facebook to fight crime

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
August 31, 2012

As summer comes to a close a string of business headlines chronicle the hit taken by Facebook investors. Facebook began trading publicly in May at $38 a share. This week the stock was trading at $19.

It is not only Facebook investors who are taking a hit, some Facebook users are finding themselves on the wrong side of the law, due in part to interactions on Facebook.

Facebook is a free social networking website that allows users to create profiles, upload photos and video, send messages and keep in touch with friends. There are more than 900 million users worldwide.

Law enforcement officials are among those 900 million users. Facebook has been used in investigations, as evidence and for purposes of arrest.

Augustin Gonzalez, a suspect in a 2010 murder, posted on the Dallas police Facebook page that he wanted to turn himself in but was in Mexico. Detectives responded, via Facebook, advising him to surrender to authorities at the nearest U.S. border check point.

A Utah woman being held hostage by a former boyfriend sent the following Christmas Eve message via Facebook. "Hello," it said. "Is anyone out there? I am having a serious problem and me and (my son) will be dead by morning."

Quick work by her Facebook friends located an address and alerted police. She was rescued and her ex-boyfriend was arrested.

Twenty-year-old Michael Baker posted a photograph of himself on Facebook stealing gas from a police cruiser. Baker's girlfriend said it was meant to be a joke. He was arrested, charged with theft by unlawful taking, and spent a night in jail.

Anthony Wilson was accused of robbing several Detroit-area banks last year. Investigators from the FBI scoured Wilson's Facebook page to compare uploaded photographs he had posted with surveillance footage taken from the scene of the robberies.

Investigators matched up articles of clothing from the surveillance photos to clothing worn by Wilson in Facebook photos to help build the case against him, resulting in Wilson’s indictment.

Orange County, California Sheriff Sgt. Chad Hogan monitors Facebook and other networking sites to aid him in his investigations. “Sometimes they’ll air out their dirty laundry in posts, and it’s stuff I have no idea why they would ever make public. I never cease to be amazed.”

Things have not improved for criminals who use Facebook.

In an important ruling issued last week, New York U.S. District Court Judge William Pauley III ruled that an accused criminal cannot rely on the Fourth Amendment to hide evidence on his Facebook profile. Federal investigators gained access to a suspect’s profile using an informant who was “friends” with him on Facebook.

According to Pauley, if a criminal shares posts with his friends, those posts are public and can be used however the recipient wants to use them -- including giving them to the government as evidence.

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