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Your Next Facebook 'Friend' Could be a Federal Agent

17 March 2010
Here's yet another reason to be careful of what you share on Facebook -- the Feds could be checking you out. An internal Justice Department document obtained
by the Electronic Frontier Foundation reveals that U.S. law enforcement agents have been logging onto social networking sites in the name of crime fighting.
According to the 33-page presentation (PDF), which was obtained by the EFF through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, federal agents can use social networking sites to gather valuable information from and about suspects. The following information is listed as being useful evidence that can be gathered from social networking sites:

Reveal personal communications
Establish motives and personal relationships
Provide location information
Prove and disprove alibis
Establish crime or criminal enterprise
The document gives a brief overview of four popular social networking sites (Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, and LinkedIn) and how information can be obtained from them. Facebook, for example, is "often cooperative with emergency requests," while Twitter "will not preserve data without legal process," while LinkedIn can be used to "identify experts" even though its "use for criminal communication appears limited."
Such undercover networking could be an issue for the Justice Department, however, as it was the Justice Department who prosecuted Missouri resident Lori Drew in 2008 for using a fake identity on Myspace. Drew created a fake Myspace account and used it to torment one of her daughter's schoolmates. The schoolmate eventually committed suicide after receiving a message from the fake account, which said that the world would be a better place without her.
Drew received three misdemeanor convictions, which were eventually dismissed by a judge.
The document asks, regarding the Drew case, "If agents violate terms of service, is that 'otherwise illegal activity'?" but does not answer the question.
While the news that U.S. law enforcement agents are wrapped up in Facebook and Myspace (just like the rest of us) is not anything new, the release of this document does pose some questions. Undercover agency work has been around forever -- but there's a limit to how "undercover" one can go in the real world, as opposed to online. As the Associated Press points out, in the real world a federal agent wouldn't be able to impersonate your best friend, spouse, or parent -- but online, they can.
Of course, the fact that the federal government is taking social networking seriously could actually work in your favor -- after all, there has been at least one instance in which charges were dropped because of a Facebook status update.
Source: Sarah Jacobsson, CNET
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