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Home  >  Topics  >  Investigations

October 03, 2007
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Officers increasingly using online social networks for intel

By Erica Perez
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

MILWAUKEE Like a lot of 22-year-olds on the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus, Bryan LaChapelle knows his way around Facebook and MySpace.

Unlike most other twenty-somethings, however, LaChapelle is a police officer. Although others his age are using social networking Web sites to connect with friends and update each other on their daily lives, LaChapelle is using Facebook to root out campus crime.

"I'm not assigned to do it," LaChapelle said. "If I have a slower assignment, or 10 minutes at the beginning of my shift, I use a series of 20 different searches."

One of those searches turned up a student group called "Poop Patrol." The page had a detailed chronicle of how students had left well, poop under the door handle of a squad car after police broke up an off-campus party.

Police confronted the culprits, who confessed to the stinky deed, and the Milwaukee Police Department ticketed the offenders for disorderly conduct.

Facebook.com and MySpace.com are the newest crime-busting tools in a police officer's repertoire, particularly for campus police, who are using the sites to investigate student crimes and violations and gather information about where students live and whom they know. In some cases, the information they find is making its way into court.

"It gives police departments information and intelligence that they ordinarily in the olden days would look for on bulletin boards," said Lisa Sprague, president-elect of the national group International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators.

Even though students know the information they post is, in many ways, public, the idea of campus police perusing social networking Web sites makes some edgy.

"Nobody's thinking about cops when you put something on Facebook," said Dane Poe, 20, a UWM freshman. "It would be surprising because there's a lot more other stuff out there they should be doing."

Campus police and college officials warn students to be careful what they post on social networking sites because they never know who's looking. Potential stalkers might deduce where someone is going to be at a certain time. Future employers might not be amused by the beer-guzzling antics shown in applicants' Facebook photos.

But even as they warn, campus police also take advantage of the information students probably shouldn't post online, whether it's phone numbers, addresses, relationships, photos or incriminating evidence.

And the use of the sites is only growing. Founded in February 2004, Facebook has 43 million users and has added more than 200,000 new registrations per day since January, according to the company's Web site.

"It really does behoove police departments to really be technically proficient on computers, and that includes social networking sites as well, because that's a very popular way for youth to socialize or to transmit information about parties and protests," Sprague said.

MySpace and Facebook information has started to show up at the courthouse, too.

Last month in Arizona's Pima County Superior Court, a prosecutor used pictures from suspect Matthew Cordova's MySpace page as evidence after he was accused of holding up a student with a Tec-9 semiautomatic handgun in June.

The 19-year-old's MySpace page had pictures of him holding a gun that looked a lot like a Tec-9. Cordova pleaded guilty to aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and was sentenced to five years in prison.

UW-Madison police officer Nick Banuelos, who uses the sites to find information about students he's investigating, said students are usually surprised to learn that he found incriminating photos or information online.

"Their knowledge of how we use it, it's pretty much low," Banuelos said.

A couple weeks before Latino fraternity Lambda Theta Phi was to throw a Sept. 15 party at UW-Madison, Banuelos, 27, who is also a student at the university, came across a Facebook post that advertised the event as having "500+ capacity," even though the school's Tripp Commons holds about 300 people. Plus, the invite had gone to more than 3,800 people in different cities and states, Banuelos said.

The UW-Madison Police Department canceled the party a week and a half beforehand, citing security concerns. The national fraternity's founder said he's considering filing a lawsuit.

"It really was fortunate in a lot of respects that (Banuelos) was made aware of this and was able to bring it to our attention," said UW-Madison Police Department Assistant Chief Dale Burke. "You gotta find somebody in your organization that knows how to maneuver their way through those networks and understand the networks and language, otherwise you're going to be left in the cold."

Default settings

The incidents give credence to a 2006 study by two Carnegie Mellon University researchers that found students overestimate the amount of privacy they have on Facebook. Nearly half of 4,000 Facebook users surveyed gave the wrong answer when asked who could view their Facebook profiles.

"There seems to be some evidence that people don't necessarily equate putting stuff on the Facebook as publishing it to the world, which they should, because that's exactly what it is," said Ralph Gross, a PhD candidate in computer science who worked on the study.

University of Oklahoma freshman Kelly Climer probably didn't think about who could view her page when she posted a profile picture of herself holding an air gun as a joke. The caption read: "Beware of me."

After a student complained about the photo, university police officers told Climer to take the picture down and confiscated the air pistol because student code prohibits her from having it.

"I'm still kind of surprised this happened," Climer told The Oklahoma Daily. "It was just on Facebook."

Gross said Facebook offers users privacy settings that can limit who sees their profiles, but most users stick to the default settings, which are more permissive. He predicts that in the future, more users will either clue in to the privacy options or will stop posting so much personal information on Facebook.

"If you describe in detail that you're breaking the rules, then you shouldn't be upset that someone who cares about the rules finds out about it," he said. "Facebook is pretty good at giving you options and allows you to choose who within the network can see who's out there."

Copyright 2007 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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