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July 19, 2012

Busting Crime Using Social Media

By Julie Griffin, Contributing Writer

Some criminals are comically indiscreet about their crimes. Such was the case with 26-year-old Travis Nicholaysen of Washington and 20-year-old London Ely of Philadelphia. While Nicholaysen was on the lam, he updated his Facebook (News - Alert) status to indicate he was now ‘single.’ Local law enforcement, spotting an opportunity, later encouraged his friends to coax the fugitive via Facebook to turn himself in. Before this incident, London Eley of Philadelphia made international headlines and faced serious criminal charges after numerous users spotted her post on her Facebook page requesting a hit on her baby’s daddy.

These two situations probably gave law enforcement and prosecutors a lucky break due to their conspicuity, but reports indicate that law enforcement is now tuning into social networking sites more often in order to gather inconspicuous evidence of crimes. A survey conducted by LexisNexis (News - Alert) Risk Solutions reveals that four out of five law enforcement officials from various ranks have used social media in their investigations. Furthermore, 74 percent of law enforcement officials, who have not used social media in the past, state that they plan on doing so in the near future.

There are continuous debates by citizens and U.S. legislators over how information on social media should be treated, and it seems that these issues are difficult to resolve. Just as one jurisdiction points to the Social Networking Online Privacy Act (SNOPA) to reach a decision, another jurisdiction will declare that Facebook’s ‘like’ is not protected by the First Amendment. Although law enforcement did not need to try hard in order to obtain information from either Nicholaysen or Eley, what happens if crime-implicating data is hidden by various privacy settings?

In a recent case involving a man charged for jaywalking during an Occupy protest on the Brooklyn Bridge, the judge ordered that his tweets were to be turned over to prosecutors as evidence to his crimes. Twitter (News - Alert), who originally protested the subpoena, was resigned to comply with Judge Matthew Sciarrino’s order due to his belief that, “If you post a tweet, just like if you scream it out the window, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy." It seems as though there will be more concrete laws regarding law enforcements rights to information on social media in the near future.

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Edited by Brooke Neuman

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