Can the Police Use Facebook to Investigate Crimes?

According to a 2012 survey, two thirds of law enforcement officials believe that social media helps solve crimes more quickly, and 80 percent use social media to assist in investigations. Here’s what you need to know about how the police use Facebook to investigate crimes.

by ONLINE ONLY OU / March 5, 2017
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In December, 2016, Facebook released their Global Government Requests Report, which highlighted the statistics on how many requests for account data they received from government officials in the first half of 2016. Compared to the first half of 2015, these requests rose by 27 percent. Approximately 56 percent of the requests made in the United States included a non-disclosure order, which means Facebook couldn’t notify the user that they were passing on their data to law enforcement.

According to a 2012 survey, two thirds of law enforcement officials believe that social media helps solve crimes more quickly, and 80 percent use social media to assist in investigations. Here’s what you need to know about how the police use Facebook to investigate crimes.

How Facebook Handles Government Requests

As Facebook explained in their Global Government Requests Report, they won’t give up just any information. Facebook notes that they only discloses records after a “formal and valid legal process.”

In emergencies, they will share information with law enforcement officials if they believe there’s a risk of serious injury or death. Law enforcement must describe the emergency and present a case for how the disclosed information can prevent harm. Facebook assures its users that it doesn’t provide governments—both U.S. and foreign governments—“back doors” into users’ information.

There are multiple types of requests government officials can put in. One of these is a preservation request, where Facebook takes a snapshot of the account information law enforcement is requesting. Law enforcement may also request content restrictions, which restricts content that violates local law. Not all of these requests will be honored.

Other Ways Police Can Get Facebook Information

Even if Facebook declines law enforcement’s request for information, police can still access online data through other means. For example, every time someone posts information publicly, either on their personal page or in public groups, that information can legally be used in criminal investigations. There is no subpoena required for accessing public data like this.

It goes deeper than that, too. If someone posts information for only their friends to see, one of their friends may come forward with the information. This can involve more serious charges like assault or less serious cases, such as when police use Facebook comments to investigate cyber bullying. In years prior, law enforcement has gone “under cover” online to friend suspects or their friends to learn more regarding the case. For example, they might compare Facebook posts with suspects’ alibis or find pictures that prove a person committed robbery. All because the person accepted a stranger’s friend request.

In one case several years ago, a New York man was charged with murder along with narcotics-related crimes thanks to his Facebook activity. Among the incriminating Facebook evidence, the man posted public photos of himself flashing gang signs. He also created private posts referencing threats and violent crimes he’d committed. One of his Facebook friends cooperated with the police and shared the man’s posts with law officials. The court ruled that the police could use this information in their investigation because once you post something for your friends to see, you are giving up your rights to privacy and allowing your friends to use the information as they see fit, which includes sharing it with police.

Sometimes, though, Facebook friends may not even know they’re handing over information to the police. This is not through deception but rather through public posts that are available for anyone to view. A criminal’s friends could reference their crime in a public post or group, or they could tag their friends in incriminating photos.

It’s not all about what you post on Facebook, though. In one case back in 2010, four individuals stole a collector’s edition Wayne Gretzky jersey at a store apparel store. The jersey was valued at $1,000. It took the store just 15 minutes to identify the thieves through Facebook. They did so by comparing video camera footage against friends of people who had “liked” their page.

What’s more, police can use friend connections to identify members of a certain gang. These connections alone can incriminate people even if they haven’t posted anything illegal on their profile.

Facebook has even been used to pinpoint fugitives’ locations, leading to their capture. These people might “check in” at a specific place or post photos that could give clues as to where they are.

Even when you haven’t done anything wrong, you can still end up under investigation by law enforcement. This may occur if you are friends with someone who has committed a crime or if you are promoting illegal activity in some way. Even joking about illegal activity can get you on the police’s radar.

Facebook has even been used by school officials, including colleges, to investigate cases underage drinking, code of conduct violations, and cyber bullying.

The ways in which law enforcement can use social media in criminal investigations and less serious charges is a bit of a gray area. That said, laws are always changing, and if it turns out that one day police can access your private messages and other information easier than they can today, they could access information from years ago.

How to Protect Your Facebook Information

Though the idea of law enforcement accessing your Facebook account sounds scary, there is little reason to worry about your Facebook privacy when it comes to government investigations, especially if you haven’t done anything wrong. What’s more troubling is the prevalence of hackers getting ahold of your private Facebook data. While only 59,229 government requests for data occurred in the first half of 2016, approximately 160,000 Facebook accounts are hacked daily. To protect your data from hackers, ensure that you:

  • Use a strong password
  • Secure any email accounts associated with your Facebook
  • Use a VPN service when accessing Facebook through public Wi-Fi
  • Enable extra security features like login approvals
  • Install anti-virus software on devices you use to access Facebook
  • Log out of Facebook if you ever use it on a public device

However, the only way to ensure complete privacy of your information is to never share sensitive data through public networks like Facebook. Even if you block certain people from your posts or set photo albums to only show up for you, you may find that information at risk of getting out if law officials subpoena your information or if a hacker gets in to your account.

Here’s the thing to remember: Everything you ever post online is in some way accessible to everyone, and even if you delete your profile, that content is never completely wiped clean. It helps to live by the rule that if you wouldn’t want someone interviewing you for a job to see it, don’t post it.

What all this boils down to is that Facebook is not against you. They will fight for you and challenge requests “that are deficient or overly broad,” they say. However, they will give up information if it means it will help protect users or other people. That said, there are other ways governments can use Facebook to catch criminals or to build a case against them. Heading caution on your profile and cooperating with law enforcement is the only way to ensure your safety.