By: Curtis M. Graham, Esq.
There is no question that social networking websites have changed the way we live and connect. These sites have also presented opportunities and challenges for law enforcement departments around the country. From community outreach to criminal investigations, it is clear that law enforcement officials have a valuable new tool at their disposal. However, it is critical that they understand how to properly use these sites and avoid common pitfalls.
A recent survey found that Facebook is the most fruitful social network for law enforcement, followed by YouTube. The various social media outlets can be searched when law enforcement officials suspect that a particular individual may be openly boasting about criminal activity or posting incriminating photographs or videos online. Officials may also receive tips through their department’s home page which can then be followed up on. If there is an urgent situation (such as a credible threat of violence), officials may file an emergency request with the site to access information. However, many sites have their own legal teams to review requests and the standard for having such a request granted is very high.
The creation of a sound internal policy is the first step toward using social media to an agency’s benefit. Drafting this policy will require consideration of a number of issues, the most important being compliance with applicable laws and regulations. The logical starting point is the Fourth Amendment, which provides that every person has the right to be free from “unreasonable searches and seizures” of their “persons, houses, papers, and effects.” Officials should be mindful that the degree of Fourth Amendment protection is almost entirely dependent upon the location from which information is seized, the method of its collection and the type of information obtained. Another source of guidance is 28 CFR Part 23, which is a standard for law enforcement agencies that operate federally funded, multijurisdictional criminal intelligence systems. The purpose behind the regulation is to protect individuals’ privacy and constitutional rights during the collection, storage and dissemination of criminal intelligence information.
Each social networking website features its own unique characteristics; this means a one-size-fits-all approach to drafting a policy should be avoided. However, it is always a good idea to be educated about privacy settings and terms-of-service requirements that seem to apply across all platforms. As just one example, photographs that are posted on public, unrestricted profile pages are treated differently than information on pages viewable only by “friends” of the user when it comes to privacy expectations.
With the abundance of information now available online, law enforcement agencies must take steps to ensure that they are following the law when they gather and act on that information. A thorough social media policy can go a long way in achieving that goal.
For questions or more information on “Getting Social – How Law Enforcement Can (And Should) Be Using Social Media,” contact:
Curtis M. Graham – MRR Lexington