Social Surveillance Sites? Wiretaps En Route to the Web

Rodney Bradford might be the only one pleased with Facebook these days.  A perfectly timed status update from his father’s house in Harlem —  “On the phone with this fat chick…Where my IHOP?” — saved the 19 year old from prison time as his update served as his alibi for an armed robbery 12 miles away in Brooklyn.  After the DA subpoenaed Facebook records which confirmed the update was submitted from Harlem, the case was dismissed leaving Bradford a free man and demonstrating the pervasiveness of social networking sites.

Bradford’s vindication, while sensational, does not mark the first time social networking sites have been used in the courtroom or by the government.  In fact, this week consumer watchdog group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed suit against multiple government agencies – including, but not limited to the CIA, DoD, FBI, and DEA – alleging unlawful use of social networking sites to investigate an array of crimes ranging from underage drinking to the coordination of G-20 summit protestors.

This filing follows a request for information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that was not met by multiple agencies.  The government scored a victory on the shoulders of Facebook in the case of Maxi Sopo, who was indicted for bank fraud after he failed to resist the temptation to brag about “living easy” in Cancun following the $200,000 heist.  Sopo’s downfall began with his acceptance of a friend request from a former Justice Department official.

The increased usage of social networking sites coupled with heavy government involvement, has led some to question whether Facebook and Twitter will become the new arenas for wiretap initiatives.  If so, the debate promises to be as heated as conventional wiretaps, with even the EFF acknowledging that information obtained from social networking sites is often for commendable reasons—where evidence of bank fraud is found, there too can an alibi be found.  The EFF points to a need for users to comprehend the extent of privacy rules and procedures of any social networking site in the face of government requests.

With forthcoming changes to Facebook’s privacy rules and settings, as alluded to in founder Mark Zuckerberg’s open letter to the Facebook community released earlier this week, the question of government usage of social networking sites promises to remain present and contested.

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