If you’re a wanted criminal, choose your Farmville neighbors wisely. Instead of peeking over a picket fence at the strawberry patch belonging to the mysterious red-head who just friended you on Facebook, you could be looking through steel bars straight at the FBI agent that caught you.
According to an FBI document redacted by Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights advocacy group, the FBI is using social networking sites to gather information on those suspected of illicit activity, known witnesses to crimes, and people who are targets of crime.
But the FBI is able to access a bit more information on a person than the average Tweeter. Under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the FBI agents can prompt a social networking site like Facebook, Myspace, or LinkedIn to send a request in order to view confidential information such as private inbox messages.
The FBI document states that such information can be helpful in proving or disproving alibis, locating a suspect, discovering connections and relationships between people, and detecting the existence of a crime or a crime in the making.
Should your welfare ever depend on a criminal being caught using MySpace or Twitter, you’re probably out of luck. According to the document, MySpace requires a search warrant to view private inbox messages less than 181 days old. Though Twitter also requires a subpoena or search warrant, it gives no contact information for law enforcement officials to use in order to demand information and retains only the IP address of the latest login. Facebook, on the other hand, usually cooperates with law enforcement officials.
So if you’re running from the law, maybe collecting cyber friends isn’t such a good idea–you might end up with a federal agent on your tail.