Private Investigators and Social Media
Social media sites are prevalent in nearly every aspect of people’s everyday lives. We’re all familiar with the effects it can have on relationships and other aspects of our lives. However, it is also a valuable resource for private investigators and evidence that has been obtained through social media sites can and does hold up in a court of law.
The Stored Communications Act
The Stored Communications Act (SCA) protects the privacy of stored Internet communications and has often been cited by Facebook, Instagram and other social media sites when they have been subpoenaed to turn over their records. However, when it comes to criminal cases, they will cooperate with the authorities. The SCA has limited use to social media companies as it has been overruled if the request for their records does not overreach and is deemed relevant to the case.
The Dubious Privacy of Social Media
Social media evidence has an increased presence during court proceedings, especially during the discovery phase of a case. One thing that has been consistent is that privacy can’t be considered a reason for denying access to social media evidence. Persons who have voluntarily shared their information on social media sites cannot hold reasonable expectations of privacy.
Most people are unaware just how easily accessible their social media accounts are when it comes to collecting evidence, and so they often don’t pay enough attention to what they’re posting on their accounts.
Private investigators can gather data from photos, tweets, texts, emails and even Snapchat and Instagram’s disappearing stories can be used as evidence in court. Resume information is readily available on LinkedIn, geo-tagging is common on most platforms and even your private messages can be used by PIs and attorneys.
The data that is gathered from social media needs to authentic and relevant in order to be admitted as evidence, and should by nature be more probative as opposed to prejudicial. In order for a judge to grant access to someone’s social media account, all that is needed is a sufficient likelihood that there is relevant information concerning the case contained within the account.
Legal Boundaries of Social Media Evidence
Even though more often than not social media accounts contain information that can be relevant to a PIs case, they still need to go about obtaining this data through legal means. Breaking into someone’s home or their electronic device in order to gather data is still illegal. According to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act PIs who are illegally accessing online content such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts as well as phone records are without a doubt breaking the law and are liable to felony charges and violation of state law. Investigators who obtain the information by pretending to be someone else online will also be in trouble; however, the lines of legality are not as clearly defined in these cases.
Social Media Evidence Cannot Replace Traditional Methods
A seasoned and professional PI will always prioritize getting video and photographic evidence of wrongdoing rather than relying solely on social media data. Surveillance evidence is irreplaceable in most cases. Even if the main source of data for the case is text and paper evidence, surveillance records are what strengthens and validates the information, especially in cases where social media evidence may be unconvincing on its own. The main reason for this is not only because it can be difficult that people are who they appear to be in the online world, but also because there is a world of difference between what people say and what they actually do.