Friend Request: It's the FBI

You may know how many friends, followers, and connections you have on your various social networking sites. But do you know how many are actually agents from the FBI, looking to comb through your profile and pictures for criminal leads? Maxi Sopo, a fugitive living abroad in Mexico, sure didn’t when he began posting Facebook status updates saying he was “loving it” and “living in paradise.” While Sopo had been careful to stay private on his social networks, unfortunately for him, his list of friends was not. And so — with the click of a button – a friend request was made, accepted, and the Secret Service was able to track down Sopo’s location and arrest him.

Kind of makes you re-think the last friend request you accepted.

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But this is how U.S. law enforcement agents are updating their tactics in a world that’s become increasingly more connected through social media. What’s most surprising, though, is the lack of boundaries for federal authorities within these spaces. Previously, the stories revolving around investigators catching crooks online involved a lot of criminal stupidity: Thief caught after stopping to check Facebook. Bank robber arrested after boasting of crime on MySpace. However, today’s federal authorities are proactively seeking evidence using social networking sites. Some of these investigative techniques include verifying alibis though Twitter messages, uncovering illegal activity through Facebook photos, and using Google Street View to investigate taxpayers. Even more, because of unclear regulation online, agents are currently able to impersonate a suspect’s family member or friend under the guise of a social networking account.

So how concerned should I be?

Assuming you’re a perfect citizen and have absolutely nothing to hide, keep on tweeting and posting to your heart’s desire. For the rest of us though, use some common sense about online privacy. Be sure you understand who you’re accepting as a friend and why you’re accepting it now. Sift through and remove any incriminating pictures from your profile. And be discreet about not only what you’re posting but who can see it (there’s some great privacy filters in Facebook you should be aware of). Until there’s more regulation on what the Feds are able to do online, your best bet is to be cautious.

Or, at the very least, not accept that friend request from the Secret Service.

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