Business, Economics and Jobs

U.S. law enforcement uses Facebook searches as tool, without users' knowledge


A town hall meeting at the Facebook headquarters in Paolo Alto California earlier this year. Many law enforcement agencies in the U.S. including the FBI, the DEA and ICE are now getting warrants to search Facebook often without the users' knowledge.


Mandel Ngan

U.S. law-enforcement agencies including the FBI, the DEA and ICE are getting warrants to search Facebook, and in many cases they are able to access a great deal of users' account information without the users being aware of it, Reuters reports:

A Reuters review of the Westlaw legal database shows that since 2008, federal judges have authorized at least two dozen warrants to search individuals' Facebook accounts. Many of the warrants requested a laundry list of personal data such as messages, status updates, links to videos and photographs, calendars of future and past events, "Wall postings" and "rejected Friend requests."

In cases of suspected rape, arson and terrorism, the Facebook search warrants that have been obtained probably request a user's "Neoprint" and "Photoprint," a Facebook package of profile and photo information that isn't even available to the user. According to Forbes, a Neoprint is essentially a user profile page screenshot, while a Photoprint is a snapshot of all the photos a person has uploaded to the site.

Given the relatively low number of cases in which this sort of evidence was used, 11 for 2011 (though that was double the number in 2010), one might think that it doesn't happen often. But Reuters’ investigation was limited to public, federal search warrants issued to Facebook, according to Forbes, which cited technologist Chris Soghoian. Non-public warrants, subpoenas, and state law-enforcement requests weren't included, and may represent a large number of requests for information issued to Facebook.

According to Reuters, Joe Sullivan, Facebook's chief security officer, wouldn't say how many warrants had been served on Facebook, but he maintained that the company was aware of users' privacy concerns and that it regularly resisted what he referred to as "fishing expeditions."

There have been no challenges of any of the warrants on the grounds that they were a violation of a user's Fourth Amendment rights regarding unlawful search and seizure, Reuters said. But that may be because the users, as well as any friends with whom they are linked on Facebook and whose pages might have been examined as part of an investigation, weren't aware of the searches, Reuters said, citing constitutional-law specialists. Neither Facebook, nor government officials, are required by law to inform a user when his or her account is being searched, though some sites such as Twitter make it a policy to do so.

Google, in a transparency report issued in late June, revealed that the percentage of law-enforcement requests it complied with for data from a user's Google search history, Gmail or other Google services that a person is using was quite high: From July 1st through December of 2010, it complied with 94 percent of such requests in the U.S., higher than in any other country, Forbes reported.

The news that Facebook data is used by law-enforcement isn't new, by any means. Back in 2009, Newsweek wrote that when police contacted Facebook about possible crimes and requested searches, the company tended to cooperate, and that generally users weren't aware of the "10 to 20 police requests the site gets each day," according to the article.

Last Friday, the Associated Press reported that, helped by data from Facebook and other social-networking sites, Israel had prevented large numbers of pro-Palestinian activists from boarding flights in Europe that were headed for Tel Aviv, questioned others when they arrived, and denied entry to 69, blocking their attempts to to travel to the West Bank on a Palestinian solidarity mission. Israel had followed the activists on social media sites, compiled a blacklist of more than 300 names and requested that airlines not allow anyone on the list onto Israel-bound flights.

Gawker points out other possible ways law-enforcement agencies will be able to monitor people's online activities, with quite a bit of breadth: The Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act of 2011, which the U.S. House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on on Tuesday, is meant to keep kids from becoming victims of child pornographers. But Gawker contends that it will also allow government and law enforcement agencies to monitor people's online activities in unexpected ways, and much more easily.

According to Gawker, the act:

would force your internet service provider (and companies like Google) to retain records of your IP address for 18 months to aid law enforcement in potential child porn cases. This basically treats every internet user like a potential child pornographer, and would be a boon not only to cops, but anyone who might later try to uncover your internet activities in court, like record companies or people mad about mean YouTube comments you left about them.