What Your Facebook Profile Tells the Police

What Your Facebook Profile Tells the Police

When law enforcement seeks information about a suspect, a subpoena to Facebook may give investigators a wealth of evidence, proving online history is permanent, and unprotected.

The Boston Police Department obtained a large amount of information in the case of “Craigslist killer” suspect Phil Markoff through a subpoena, which included detailed social network activity history. Police accused Markoff of murdering Julissa Brisman, and robbing two other women, after hiring them for erotic services on Craigslist.

The subpoena yielded 62 pages of Markoff’s Facebook history, with photos, wall posts, statuses, messages, contacts and past activity including logins and IP addresses. The Boston Phoenix published the evidence as part of a cover story on the storied case, which came to an unexpected close when Markoff killed himself in August 2010 before he could be convicted.

The case shows just how much a Facebook history can come back to haunt users, who often make spontaneous decisions to post something on Facebook, unaware or at least unconcerned their actions can have legal ramifications. Uncovered Facebook histories offer a way for police to get a full profile of a suspect they can use in court, and the online identity, complete with their interactions with others on the site, could be a basis for closing a case.

Access to Facebook histories pushes boundaries of privacy and gives law enforcement a network’s worth of information, even on users who aren’t a suspect. If a Facebook user had activity with someone who becomes a suspect in a crime, that user’s name will show up in a subpoenaed history.

In addition, given the rising popularity of “checking in” on Facebook, law enforcement can, in theory, easily track a suspect’s whereabouts at the time of a crime.

No recent figures are available on how often police departments subpoena a social network, but as investigations catch up with modern technology, subpoenas like Boston’s could be increasingly common. Social media activity is such a growing platform that the NYPD is even creating a unit to comb websites for criminal activity indicators.

Facebook has an instruction page for law enforcement to get records, whether or not the user has given consent. The more detailed the request, the better, says Facebook, but it will turn over records immediately if it is an emergency. Regardless of the circumstances, Facebook’s allegiance is to law enforcement over user privacy when criminal investigations are underway.

A suspect’s online activity could let investigators glean information about how online operations may have led up to the crimes, put a person near the scene of a crime or paint a picture of a suspect that differs from their defense. But eliminating any right to privacy means users must watch their online identity and interactions to prevent their names from popping up on an evidence list at a time when Facebook is a major way to communicate.

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