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Your new Facebook friend – the FBI!

We've all heard about college admission officers turning to MySpace to get a better read on an applicant's circle of friends. Or prospective employers who check out Facebook, wanting to know what a job candidate gets up to at weekends. Now it appears there are other figures of authority that might be interested in our social networking pages – the Feds!

A document obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit makes clear that federal agents are logging on to social networking sites in increasing numbers, hoping to turn up leads that will help them fight crime or bring fugitives to justice.

The internal Justice Department document depicts the massive collection of personal data, photographs and video clips that can be found on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, LinkedIn and other networking services as a veritable treasure trove of potential evidence for tracking violent crime, theft, financial fraud and more.

It describes how investigators can check suspects' alibis by comparing stories told to law enforcement agencies with tweets or updates posted at the same time; how people posing in photos with expensive, newly-acquired jewelry or cars can be linked to robberies or burglaries; and how lists of friends can help agents identify accomplices or locate fugitives.

However, some people have expressed misgivings about how all this new digital age information is being compiled and used. "[The document] doesn't really discuss any mechanisms for accountability or ensuring that government agents use these tools responsibly," said Martha Hoffman, a senior attorney with the EFF.

How helpful can the social networks be? Last year, the Huffington Post told the story of Maxi Sopo, a native of Cameroon living in the Seattle area who was wanted on bank fraud charges. Apparently Sopo crossed into Mexico in a rented car after learning that federal agents were taking a close look at his affairs.

Although they initially found no trace of him online, the agents kept checking and eventually he showed up on Facebook, posting updates about all the fun he was having south of the border. While Sopo's online profile was private, his list of friends was not. Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Scoville began going through the list and was able to learn where Sopo was living.

Mexican authorities arrested Sopo in September and he's now awaiting extradition to the U.S.!   

Comment by Angie, posted 3/21/2010, 9:14 PM:

I hold a clearance through the government and I am not allowed to be friends with Foreign Nationals, etc., on Facebook or Twitter, so I know they're checking.
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