Privacy in Social Network Sites

Privacy and Identity-relevant Information in Social Network Sites

Prosecutors and lawyers turn to Social Network Sites

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Prosecutors and lawyers are using Social Network Sites to argue their cases. However, for prosecutors it is much easier to access information from these sites than it is for defense lawyers to get their clients to delete sensitive information.
The case of Joshua Lipton, a college junior who was charged in a drunken driving crash, has recently become a center point of attention. Read this bit from AP:

The Associated Press: Web networking photos come back to bite defendants

[T]he 20-year-old college junior attended a Halloween party dressed as a prisoner. Pictures from the party showed him in a black-and-white striped shirt and an orange jumpsuit labeled “Jail Bird.”

In the age of the Internet, it might not be hard to guess what happened to those pictures: Someone posted them on the social networking site Facebook. And that offered remarkable evidence for Jay Sullivan, the prosecutor handling Lipton’s drunken-driving case.

Sullivan used the pictures to paint Lipton as an unrepentant partier who lived it up while his victim recovered in the hospital. A judge agreed, calling the pictures depraved when sentencing Lipton to two years in prison.

This seems part of a larger trend, where prosecutors and lawyers use Social Network Sites (SNS) to find (primary or secondary) evidence and information to discredit the counter party.
Consider this quote from redOrbit:
Social Networks Help Detectives Solve Crimes – Technology – redOrbit

During the sentencing, prosecutors show the pictures, not only to embarrass defendants but to make it harder for them to convince a judge that they’re remorseful or that their drunken behavior was an accident.

Prosecutors do not always immediately turn to networking sites while preparing for sentencing, despite embarrassing photos of criminal defendants that are sometimes available in plain sight and accessible under a person’s real name.

However, in circumstances where they’ve had reason to suspect incriminating pictures online, or have been tipped off to a particular person’s MySpace or Facebook page, the sites have produced critical character evidence.

Darryl Perlin, a senior prosecutor in Santa Barbara County, California said, “It’s not possible to do it in every case.”

He said, “But certain cases, it does become relevant.”

Defense lawyers are aware of these techniques, and as long as both parties have equal opportunities to collect and delete the information from SNS, this looks like a fair equilibrium. Also from redOrbit:

Social Networks Help Detectives Solve Crimes – Technology – redOrbit

Santa Barbara defense lawyer Steve Balash said the day he met his client Jessica Binkerd, he automatically asked if she had a MySpace page. Binkerd was a recent college graduate charged with a fatal drunken driving crash. When she said yes, he told her to remove it, because he figured it might have pictures that cast her in a bad light.

But, Binkerd failed to remove the page, and right before she was sentenced in January 2007, the attorney was “blindsided” by a prosecutors report that featured photos posted on MySpace after the crash.

However, the effort to access the information is not proportional to the effort needed to delete information from a SNS. The NY Times ran a series of articles on how to delete your Facebook profile:

How Sticky Is Membership on Facebook? Just Try Breaking Free – New York Times

Some users have discovered that it is nearly impossible to remove themselves entirely from Facebook, setting off a fresh round of concern over the popular social network’s use of personal data.

Furthermore, it is unknown if and how SNS store information on their profiles on their servers for own use. This information could be requested by warrants, subpoenas or any legal equivalent. This raises grave concerns about how to protect your identity relevant information and questions about if and how SNS retain data that can haunt you later. I plan on a follow-up post.


Identity Relevant Information is a conceptualization of information relating to an individual that is broader than the commonly used ‘Personal Identifiable Information’. I find this term more appropriate for use with Social Network Sites. Noëmi Manders-Huits and Jeroen van den Hoven coined this term in their excellent paper ‘Moral Identification in Identity Management Systems’.


Manders-Huits, N.L.J.L. & van den Hoven. J (2008), “Moral identification in Identity Management Systems”, in Fisher-Hübner et al. (eds.), The Future of Identity in the Information Society, Springer Boston, pp 77-91.

Update 2:
An American investigator and his partner have started a business in educating law enforcement officers how to use Social Network Sites to investigate crimes.

Area police training to patrol Web sites | Lynchburg News Advance

Their business, Cyber Associates Training Seminars, held its first training seminar for investigators last week, teaching officers from the Lynchburg Police Depart- ment, the Liberty University Police Department, the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office, and the FBI.

Although the article focuses on finding murderers and pedophiles, my post shows that law enforcement officers can also use SNS to track down less obviously malign behavior.

Written by davidrip

July 21, 2008 at 11:33 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. Thanks for this beautiful Posting On social networking!
    It was very nice to see this great article talking about Community!


    July 28, 2008 at 3:02 am

  2. […] people’s identity-relevant information, a term coined by Van den Hoven and Manders-Huits, see my earlier post. Read the example, from my research paper, […]

  3. […] Earlier, I blogged about the case of Joshua Lipton, who was charged with driving under influence, see my earlier post. The journalist, Marie-José Klaver (check her blog in Dutch), also mentions the Electronic […]

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