Social networking
 not a private affair

Just because Facebook accounts come with a username, a password and privacy controls doesn’t mean they’re impervious to snooping — and we don’t mean by hackers.

Judges can compel Facebook users to share what they’ve posted. It’s more and more common for social networking sites to be used as evidence in divorce and child custody cases.

In an online article, “How Facebook could ruin your case,” attorney Keith Ecker of the legal website goes into detail about how social media have become a powerful weapon for trial lawyers to learn about parties and witnesses.

“What people need to understand is that this information doesn’t simply evaporate into thin air after it leaves your screen. It can be mined, analyzed and reviewed in civil and criminal cases,” Ecker wrote.

In criminal cases, scrutiny usually lands on the defendant. But a New Jersey judge recently ordered a teen who accused a man of rape to turn over access to her Facebook account, raising questions about whether crime victims should be subjected to such invasions of privacy.

The judge will review the alleged victim’s Facebook profile for any comments related to the alleged rape before deciding whether they can be used in court. The judge agreed to a request from the accused’s lawyer who said he wanted to find out if there were any hints that the sex was consensual. The judge warned the lawyer that the review might uncover information damaging to the accused.

In the interest of blind justice, the judge’s order seems acceptable, perhaps even sensible. The teen victim told prosecutors she was willing to give the judge access to her account. And during the discovery process there are few stones that lawyers leave unturned.

But the judge’s action could have a chilling effect on reporting such crimes. Victims may think twice if they feel like they have to turn their personal lives into an open book just to press charges. Worse, the New Jersey case reinforces the notion that if you want to be a participant on social networking sites, then you’d better not have anything to hide.

In theory, that’s sage advice. But even the most careful Facebook user takes risks. There are too many ways that an innocuous post can be taken out of context.

Fortunately, there are numerous guidelines as to what constitutes admissible evidence in a court case. But who wants their Facebook account to be a testing ground?

The New Jersey case is a good reminder that there are no expectations of privacy on social networking sites. If you want to avoid the possibility of getting caught up in a court-ordered review of your profile or timeline, you can either either stay out of the court system or stay off Facebook.


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