Watch what you type: police and prosecutors are increasingly using Facebook and Twitter for evidence to prosecute crimes and investigate fraud.
Prosecutors, especially those focused on criminal gangs, can look to social media like Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare to prove connections between people, offering building blocks for a case.
In the case of the January Arizona shooting rampage focused on U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, prosecutors may use the “Goodbye friends” message alleged gunman Jared Loughner posted to MySpace hours before the crime as evidence against him.
Even benign postings can help, or hurt, a case. The New York Times reported on a boy who had been charged with a robbery in Brooklyn — until his Facebook posting, jokingly complaining about breakfast at his dad’s house in Manhattan, supported his claims that he was otherwise engaged at the time of the crime. The charges were dropped.
It’s not just law enforcement that mining social media for evidence. Health insurers, especially those focused on disability, medical liability and workers’ compensation, are regularly monitoring Facebook and Twitter to detect fraud. A 23-year-old Floridian who claimed to be disabled by injuries from an auto accident was caught out by investigators, thanks to his regular tweeting about extreme jet skiing adventures.
“Insurance companies and representatives of insurance companies are using social media to get an edge on their competition in understanding the risk profile of the insured,” said Owen Tripp, co-founder and chief operating officer of online profile management firm Reputation.com.
Social media not only has found its way into the evidence-gathering of prosecutors, but has also made inroads into the legal process itself. Lawyers are increasingly sifting through the postings, messages and check-ins on social networking sites to determine jury selection.
As social media redefines boundaries between public and private, people who misinterpret that shifting line are finding their private worlds becoming unexpectedly public.
Although catching criminals and cheats is a handy byproduct of this confusion, their self-incrimination highlights the need for both individuals and social network designers to think carefully about how we handle our online lives.