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Use of social network websites in investigations

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Title: Use of social network websites in investigations  
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Subject: Privacy issues of social networking sites, Online social networking, LockerDome,, Edmodo
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Use of social network websites in investigations

Social network services are increasingly being used in legal and criminal investigations. Information posted on sites such as MySpace, Orkut and Facebook has been used by police and university officials to prosecute users of said sites. In some situations, content posted on MySpace has been used in court to determine an appropriate sentence based on a defendant's attitude.[1] [2] The U.S. DOT National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has made federal grants available to states to train law enforcement officers to use social media sites to identify events that may result in impaired driving or consumption by minors. As of 2012, Michigan spent over $4.5 million through this program, and has trained over 100 local police officers to use social media cites to identify and target events. [3]


Facebook, a social network service, is increasingly being used by school administrations and law enforcement agencies as a source of evidence against student users. The site, a popular online destination for college students, allows users to create profile pages with personal details. In the early years of the site, these pages could be viewed by other registered users from the same school, including resident assistants, campus police, or others who signed up for the service. The user privileges and terms of service of the site have since been changed to allow users to control who has the ability to view their content.

Recent disciplinary actions against students based on information made available on Facebook has spurred debate over the legality and ethics of school administrators' harvesting such information. Facebook's Terms of Use specify that "the website is available for your personal, noncommercial use only," misleading some to believe that college administrators and police may not use the site for conducting investigations. However, Facebook spokespeople have made clear that Facebook is a public forum and all information published on the site should be presumed available to the general public, school administrators included. Legal experts agree that public information sources such as Facebook can be legally used in criminal or other investigations.[4]

In the aftermath of the 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup riot, Community participation in assisting police to identify the rioters has been described as unprecedented,[5] police admitted to being overwhelmed by the amount of evidence provided by social media.[6]

Alcohol policy violations

It has become increasingly common for colleges and universities to use Facebook to investigate underage drinking and violations of dry campus policies. Students who violate these policies may be discovered through photographs of illicit drinking behavior, membership in drinking-related groups, or party information posted on the Facebook website. Examples of such investigations include:

  • In October 2005, pictures from Facebook were used to cite violators of university alcohol policy at North Carolina State University. Charges included underage drinking and violations of the dormitory alcohol policy, specifically holding open bottles of alcoholic beverages in the dorm hallway. A dorm resident advisor originally wrote up citations for 14 different students, some of which were dropped. Details were not released by the university, but the incident received news coverage including articles in the official school newspaper and segments on local TV stations.[7]
  • In November 2005, four students at Northern Kentucky University were fined for posting pictures of a drinking party on Facebook. The pictures, taken in one of NKU's dormitories, proved that the students were in violation of the university's dry campus policy.[8]
  • In November 2005, Emory University officials cited members of the Facebook group "Dobbs 2nd Alcoholics," referring to the second floor of a campus residence hall, for conduct code violations. A similar drinking group, "Wooddruff=Wasted," was also investigated. The group's club members only discussed "having fun in Wooddruff" and said no photos of students were ever posted on Facebook.[9]
  • In response to the monitoring, some students have begun to submit "[11]

Other investigations

  • In December 2004, The Student Life (the student newspaper at Pomona College in Claremont, California) reported that an assistant football coach at the college had been living in the team's equipment room and hosting parties there. The paper cited postings by football players on a Facebook group page titled "We Miss Coach Baker" as evidence of the alleged parties.[12]
  • In October 2005, sophomore Cameron Walker was expelled from Fisher College in Boston for comments about a campus police officer made on Facebook. These comments, including the statement that the officer "loves to antagonize students...and needs to be eliminated," were judged to be in violation of the college's code of conduct.[13]
  • In November 2005, Kansas State University authorities announced that they were using Facebook to investigate a possible violation of the school's honor code potentially involving over 100 students. Students used the message board of a Facebook group to share class information without authorization from the professor.[14]
  • In October 2005, Pennsylvania State University police used Facebook to track down students who rushed the field after the October 8 Ohio State game. Two students were later charged with criminal trespass for their involvement.[15]
  • In January 2006, Syracuse University's student newspaper, The Daily Orange, featured an article about a student who claimed Syracuse City Police personally warned him in advance about having a party he had listed on Facebook. The university denied the allegations and stated that their own peace officers would have handled the case in any event.[16]
  • In February 2006, The Daily Orange reported about another Syracuse University incident, in which four students were placed on disciplinary probation after creating a group entitled "Clearly [instructor's first name] doesn't know what she's doing ever." The group featured derogatory and personal attacks aimed at the instructor. After meeting with judicial affairs, the students admitted that their comments on the site were inappropriate and accepted an agreement that they would not contact the instructor again.[17]
  • In February 2006, Oxford police were directed to the Facebook profile of a Miami University student because it showed the police sketch of a suspect in the rape of another Miami University student as the account owner's personal picture. The police arrested the student and charged him with inducing panic.[18]
  • Students that had created a Facebook group to complain about a professor's teaching shortcomings at the University of Louisville were responsible in part for dismissal of that instructor in February 2006. The students were not punished.[19]
  • Pictures posted of unrelated parties thrown by students at the E-Dawg, a Seattle rapper. Facebook removed the photos from the site as black student groups called for a university-sponsored open forum to discuss the racially insensitive undercurrent on campus.[20] Similar action was taken with the UConn pictures, which depicted a “Bullets and Bubbly” themed party held days after Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2007. Half the partygoers brought champagne and dressed in formalwear for the “bubbly” portion of the theme, while the other half brought 40 ounces and dressed in do-rags, baggy hip-hop inspired clothing, gold teeth, and in some cases carried fake machine guns. The university responded by holding an open forum discussing the insensitive nature of the party and resulting photos. Controversy over similar parties has also occurred at Clemson University (South Carolina), Tarleton State University (Texas), Texas A&M University, and the University of Chicago.[21]
  • In April 2006, University of Dayton student Christopher Herbert was fined approximately $10,000 for damages caused by an annual event known as "LowesFest." Herbert had posted a public invitation to the event on Facebook, though he did not attend the event himself. The University informed him 24 hours before "LowesFest" that he would have to pay for any and all extra costs (police, cleaning, etc.) stemming from that evening. However, Christopher Herbert chose to not pay the fine and he transferred out of the University of Dayton.[22]
  • In April 2006, officials at the State University of New York at Cobleskill took a student from Sri Lanka, Tharindu Meepegama into custody after Meepegama posted pictures of him with a shotgun and wrote comments that the school officials found "troubling". Meepegama, who was later allowed to return to the school, said it was all a misunderstanding.[23]
  • In August 2006, police officers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign arrested two students who were spotted urinating in public. One of the students ran, and the other was apprehended by police. When queried about the identity of the student who ran, the student in custody lied saying he did not know him. The arresting officer, upon talking with witnesses, obtained the name of the student who ran. He later found that the two were Facebook friends, and therefore that the questioned student had lied. This student was charged with obstruction of justice.[24]
  • In October 2006, a male Southern Illinois University student faced possible expulsion for creating a Facebook page detailing his sexual relationship with a young female he’d been involved with in the past. Other male students added to the page with their own experiences with the woman, until she brought it to the attention of Facebook administrators, who permanently removed the page. The 19-year-old female cited slander while the young man claimed it was an inside joke and assumed she would understand the humor. In an interview he stated, “I never thought something on Facebook would get me into trouble out in the real world.” During the debacle, his fellow students created yet another Facebook page with updates on the controversy.[25]
  • In December 2006, campus police at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington were investigating the theft of two PlayStation consoles, which had been stolen by the two perpetrators of a beating and robbery on campus. They planned to raid the rented house of Peyton Strickland, an 18-year-old student at nearby Cape Fear Community College. They discovered that the other alleged robber, Ryan Mills, had posted photographs of himself on Facebook in which he posed with guns. Expecting "heavily armed resistance" at Strickland's house, the officers called in a SWAT team for backup to raid Strickland's house. When they arrived at the residence, which three students rented, they were not immediately let in. As one officer began to break down the door with a battering ram, another officer mistook the sound of the battering ram for gunshots and shot through the glass door multiple times, killing the unarmed Strickland and his dog.[23] The officer, Christopher Long, was not charged with second-degree murder by two different grand juries.[23] He was however initially indicted by one grand jury, which was later attributed to a clerical error and overturned. Soon after the incident, Christopher Long went on to receive $1,000 paid out by the sheriff he worked under as well as receiving a "Local Hero" award for $4000.[26]
  • In January 2007, several Ottawa employees of Farm Boy were terminated due to their postings on a Facebook group titled "I Got Farm Boy'd."[27]
  • In January 2007, a long-standing debate over the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's dancing Chief Illiniwek mascot intensified after racist remarks about Native Americans were discovered on a pro-mascot Facebook group. The group, entitled "If They Get Rid of the Chief, I'm Becoming a Racist," contained wall posts by students that said things like, "What they don't realize is that there never was a racist problem before...but now I hate redskins and hope all those drunk casino owning bums die." Another student directed a post towards a particularly vocal Native American grad student, saying, "I say we throw a tomahawk into her face."[28] The page was removed, but not before inciting a university investigation into the threats and spawning a counter group entitled “The Chief Dance is Racist, Plain and Simple.”
  • In February 2007, following the fatal hit-and-run death of freshman Carlee Wines, University of Connecticut campus police said they used Facebook to link the suspected driver, Anthony P. Alvino of Lindenhurst, N.Y., to the university. By following leads via Facebook, police learned of the connection between Alvino and his girlfriend, Michele A. Hall, a UConn student.[30] The Long Island, N.Y. newspaper Newsday reported: "Police traced Alvino's connection to UConn through his entry in Facebook, which listed Hall as his girlfriend."[31] Alvino was charged for the hit-and-run, while Hall was charged with helping cover it up and hindering prosecution.[32]
  • In April 2007, just days after the Virginia Tech shooting, a student at the SUNY College at Cobleskill was remanded into psychiatric care and suspended from college after posting a photo of himself on his profile with a vaguely threatening message underneath.[33]
  • In October 2008, in Dexter" and it is believed that he murdered Altinger in the style of Dexter's clandestine murders. Shortly after Altinger's disappearance, Twitchell gained access to Altinger's e-mail and Facebook accounts, changing Altinger's Facebook status and e-mailing Altinger's contacts stating that he met a girl online and was planning a move to Costa Rica.[34][35]
  • In July 2009, an emergency medical technician in New York City was terminated and arrested for taking a picture of a crime scene and uploading it to Facebook. The technician, 46-year-old Frank Musarella, was charged with "official misconduct".[36]
  • Nathalie Blanchard, a Quebec woman on long-term sick leave for depression, sued [37][38] Some experts noted that the privacy controls on Facebook and other social networking sites was "laughable".[39]
  • On October 27, 2010 in Kanata Centrum, Ottawa, a collector's edition hazelle jersey and a cap were stolen from an apparel store by four young males. In 15 minutes, the staff were able to use the store's friends list of 324 people who "like" the store and recognized the face of the perpetrators. Police were contacted, found the suspects, and the jersey valued at $1000.00 was recovered.[40]
  • On March 17, 2012, San Marinan singer Valentina Monetta was selected to sing Facebook Uh, Oh, Oh for Eurovision Song Contest 2012. People who were on the social network pointed out that the lyrics contained a commercial message for Facebook. The lyrics of the song that contained references to Facebook were banned from the contest on March 18. The banned lyrics must be replaced no later than March 22. If the banned lyrics are not replaced, Valentina's other song will be selected on that day.

Student government

  • In October 2005, [41]


Facebook and other social networking sites are being used to bring bullying outside of school. Students are being targeted on the internet and even mobile devices. A new strategy to catch cyber-bullies is being implemented in Reading, Berkshire:

  • From February 28, 2011 until May 2011, Thames Valley Police Officers will be using Facebook to catch cyber-bullies. With the help of a teenage volunteer, the police will go through Facebook pages to investigate reported instances of cyber-bullying. If there is anything inappropriate found, a Facebook message will be sent to the offender which will warn them of the consequences of bullying. Along with the message, the student's parents will also receive a letter highlighting the incident and the potential consequences.[42]
  • In May 2012, Lake Havasu Unified School District #1 used evidence found on Facebook to catch multiple cyber-bullies after a discussion on a post that the one who felt bullied was not involved in. The school district acquired the list of comments through another student, who printed them out and handed them in to the school administration.
  • In Bangalore, India, school students of certain schools were all asked to delete their Facebook profiles in the wake of cyber bullying [43]

Indian law addresses some of the components of cyber-bullying. However, the perpetrators are children and therefore alternatives to criminalization and other policies should be adopted. [44]


  • In February 2006, a 16-year-old Colorado boy was arrested for juvenile possession of a firearm after police saw pictures that he had posted on MySpace of himself posing with rifles and handguns.[45] He was convicted in April 2006.[45]

See also


  1. ^ "Increase Facebook Likes, Twitter Followers". Retrieved 14 March 2012. 
  2. ^ "Social Marketing". Retrieved 5 April 1992. 
  3. ^ "Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning 2012 Annual Evaluation Report (pp. 21)". 2012. Retrieved 2014-05-20. 
  4. ^ "The Facebook: not just for students". 2005-11-03. Retrieved 2006-10-14. 
  5. ^ "Vancouver riots 2011: Crown to look at potential charges". Global News. 2011-06-20. Archived from the original on 2011-10-04. Retrieved 2011-06-21. 
  6. ^ "Police overwhelmed by social media evidence". CBC News. 2011-06-20. Retrieved 2011-06-20. 
  7. ^ - News - NCSU Students Face Underage Drinking Charges Due To Online Photos
  8. ^ The Northerner
  9. ^ Officials at institutions nationwide using Facebook site
  10. ^ Facebook prank on police - Boing Boing
  11. ^ How much cake is an inordinate amount? Because I can eat a lot of cake. CASE CLOSED. - CollegeHumor picture
  12. ^ Football Coaches Living, Partying in Rains Equipment Room - The Student Life
  13. ^ Schweitzer, Sarah (2005-10-06). "Fisher College expels student over website entries". The Boston Globe. 
  14. ^ Facebook involved in possible Honor Pledge violation
  15. ^ Site used to aid investigations
  16. ^ The Daily Orange
  17. ^ The Daily Orange
  18. ^ Miami Student
  19. ^ [1]
  20. ^ Amos, Meredith (March 1, 2006). "Baylor U. students outraged by off-campus party". The Lariat. 
  21. ^ Larsen, Lindsay (February 2, 2007). "U. Connecticut law school party causes stir over stereotypes". The Daily Campus. 
  22. ^ Flyer News - Junior unfairly blamed for Lowesfest problems
  23. ^ a b c Locke, Mandy (July 15, 2007). "Photos online brew trouble".  
  24. ^ Student arrested after police Facebook him - News
  25. ^ Jadhav, Adam; Shane Graber (October 5, 2006). "Students learning dangers of Web 'confession'; Sophomore may be expelled for Facebook page". The Record. 
  26. ^ [2]
  27. ^ CANOE - CNEWS - Canada: Workers fired over Internet postings
  28. ^ Mercer, David (January 10, 2007). "University of Ill. Investigates threats against American Indian". Associated Press. 
  29. ^ "'"11 Ontario students suspended for 'cyber-bullying. CBC News. 2007-02-12. Archived from the original on 2007-02-14. 
  30. ^ Two Arrests Made - News
  31. ^ [3]
  32. ^ Topic Galleries -
  33. ^ SUNY Cobleskill student says his Internet posting troubled officials
  34. ^ 'Dexter' murder case raises alarms over pop-culture violence
  35. ^ Bizarre slaying mirrored TV show: police
  36. ^ Joshua Rhett Miller (2009-07-29). "Graphic Photo Posted on Facebook at Center of Pending Lawsuit".  
  37. ^ "Depressed woman loses benefits over Facebook photos". CBC News. 2009-11-21. Archived from the original on 2009-11-21. 
  38. ^ Woman loses benefits over Facebook pics - Technology & science - Tech and gadgets | NBC News
  39. ^ The Canadian Press: Quebec woman's Facebook insurance battle highlights need for online prudence
  40. ^ Butler, Don (31 October 2010). "Facebook helps store owner track thief". Yahoo News. Archived from the original on 2010-11-04. Retrieved 2010-11-01. 
  41. ^ [4]
  42. ^ Thames Valley Police to use Facebook to catch cyberbullies (Wired UK)
  43. ^ No Facebook! Bangalore schools ask students to delete profiles |
  44. ^ Cyber-Bullying in India: The Search for a Solution - Why the Current Law in India is Ill-Equipped by Mukta Batra :: SSRN
  45. ^ a b Lindsay, Sue (April 5, 2006). "Boy who posed with guns convicted".  
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