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Facebook accounts increasingly searched by law enforcement

Federal law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, DEA and ICE have increasingly been using Facebook and other social media sites as tools in criminal investigations. The problem is that many of these searches are not being reported to users, which may lead to legal challenges that claim the searches are a violation of the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against illegal search and seizure.

A recent article in International Business Times discussed an investigation by Reuters into Westlaw's legal database of authorized federal warrants. The investigation found that a more than twenty warrants to search an individual's private Facebook account had been granted since 2008 in cases involving such crimes as rape, terrorism and arson. The investigation also found that often people were not told that their accounts had been searched, which may be why there have not been many legal challenges to the method yet.

The most recent case law that applies to this case comes from a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said that a bank did not have to tell a customer when it gave his financial records to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. This is because the Supreme Court said the man should not have an expectation of privacy after giving this information to the bank.

This may apply to Facebook since people are handing personal information to the third party of Facebook. The problem is that there is so much personal information being handed over that it may be different than the bank case. People may also not realize what information about themselves the third party possesses or should be allowed to possess. Challenges and judicial clarifications around this issue will most certainly come up in the near future.

Source: International Business Times, "A new U.S. law-enforcement tool: Facebook searches," Jeff John Roberts, 12 July 2011

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