Legal implications of using Facebook

Legal implications of using Facebook

Just how readily will the social network behemoth hand over your data?

If you are among the 1 billion members of Facebook’s social networking site, you may want to listen up. A recent article highlighting how local law enforcement uses Facebook’s data banks and treasure trove of personal information may give you cause for concern.

The concern is not that you have any criminal activity to hide - hopefully, but that your personal profile might be caught up in a criminal investigation of someone else in your network, or worse; you could be wrongly accused, yet have charges against you bolstered by evidence collected from your Facebook account.

The Boston Phoenix reports that it recently published a feature on Philip Markoff, AKA the Craigslist Killer, and in so doing, requested a series of documents that were part of the Boston Police Department’s investigation of Markoff. The paper requested such documents as subpoenas, warrants and other investigative records.

The BPD accommodated, and the Phoenix received detailed public records that demonstrated how police got the killer and made their case in the process. However, journalists were quite shocked by one file in particular: Facebook’s.

Facebook has a page for law enforcement that delineates its policy for distributing information to law agents. It states that a warrant is necessary, as required by law. However, according to the article, the District Attorney working for Boston’s homicide unit sent a Grand Jury Subpoena to Facebook, and in return, received a mountain of detailed personal information within a 70-page document.

The social network mogul did not redact (blackout) anything, not even the names and pictures of other individuals in Markoff’s network. The Facebook file on Markoff included all comments, wall posts, deleted wall posts, all photos tagged and owned, groups, IP addresses, cookies, friends, network and status updates, login data, and who he blocked.

The subpoena also asked for feeds and video, “if possible.” Judging from the level of detail contained in the paper file, they likely were furnished with a disk chalk full of videos as well.

While Facebook claims to require a search warrant as prescribed by law, personal information stored on networks is still in a legal grey area that has a long way to go toward uniformed rules and laws. But at least one court has ruled that such information is covered under the Stored Communications Act as it pertains to privacy and user rights.

If Facebook agrees with this ruling, its actions do not appear to support its position. For one thing, a subpoena holds much less weight than does a search warrant in terms of procedural law requirements.

Also at issue here is how seemingly nonchalant Facebook is about identifying all innocent persons in a network who unknowingly get caught up in the fray. When you visit the Boston Phoenix page and view the file on Markoff, keep in mind that it was the Phoenix blacking out all innocent persons and their information, not Facebook.