Monday, April 6, 2009

The Profile Police

From the Washington Post,

As high school students flock to social networking sites, campus police are scanning their Facebook and MySpace pages for tips to help break up fights, monitor gangs and thwart crime in what amounts to a new cyberbeat ...

An expedition into a thicket of blinking MySpace profiles found high school students discussing drugs, sex and fights. It was all publicly available (although in language that caused a reporter to blush).

"It's crazy, the things they put on there," Loudoun County Sheriff Stephen O. Simpson said. "They seem to think they're invisible."

Some students object, 

"It's not really [their] business to be looking at students' profiles," said Eleni Gibson, 15, a freshman at Robinson. "Because they might see something that students didn't want them to see." But she acknowledged that the practice might be worthwhile for safety."

Others acknowledge the presence of police on social networking sites,

"I think that we all know that [they] can look at our Facebooks, and they do," said LeighAnne Baxter, 17, a senior at Robinson. "If you do put up incriminating pictures, you have to be prepared for the consequences."


Charlie said...

I have always thought about law enforcement and even colleges to some degree checking out students' online profile. I think that kids should be held fully accountable for what they put up on their pages. They should be smart enough (and if they aren't they shouldn't have a page) to know that a lot of their information can be viewed by these types of people. Kids should understand the implications of putting up incriminating pictures of themselves.

At the same rate, however, it would be very naive for law enforcement or even schools to take the information that they find on these websites as fact. I can site one example where a kid that I knew from high school used facebook to create a fake alibi that ruled him out of a crime where he stole a lot of money. He simply posted pictures of a party and dated the same date as the crime took place. The police took this as fact and disregarded him as a criminal. While this is only one example, I think that is shows that although there is a lot of information on these sites, you cannot assume that all that goes on his truthful or accurate

Grace said...

I found this article interesting as it once again brought up one of the most prevalent security/privacy issues in the lives of college students—social networking websites. It is fair that schools would use these sites as monitory systems. This is only true when schools use completely legal means to obtain information, respecting privacy options put in place by the students. Because sites like Facebook give users options to hide information, or rather, to put up as much information as they like, and give only those who they want access to it, I think monitoring is fine. If you don’t want teachers looking at your profile, keep it private, and don’t friend them. I think you get into some dark water when schools create false students and friend others students in order to monitor them (as has been done by many schools). This situation, although not necessarily illegal is, in my opinion, unethical, and certainly violates Facebook’s “Terms of Service” agreement.

I do not however believe that the information/pictures/etc… on these sites can necessarily be used by the police in criminal investigations. For the reasons Charlie mentioned, the information on these sites is just not reliable enough. In the world of Photoshop and other tools, even a picture which was once undeniable is no longer “worth a thousand words.” There is no way that most of what is posted on these sites could be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Although going through the disciplinary bureaucracy of a school might be difficult, it’s nothing compared to the legal situations police might use networking sites to investigate. That is why my position is different regarding the two types of monitoring.

Stephan said...

Unfortunately some people are clinging onto the notion of nearly zero accountability for their actions especially when there is photographic evidence. It appears that the cliche of "Don't put anything in writing that you wouldn't want your grandmother to read on the front page of the newspaper," may actually be good advice.

In terms of the legal power of universities to search students pages, wouldn't there be some sort of loss of power as students as we use a university's wireless network the same way as an employee using a company computer? I agree with Grace that the university may have the ability to monitor students pages and photographic content by creating fake pages but they would themselves be unethical in this situation.

Brian G said...

I remember in high school we were constantly reminded that we were responsible for our conduct outside of school as well as in school. When students were involved in physical fights and caught wearing my high school apparel the administrators went to great lengths to investigate and punish who was responsible. Of course today with every student owning a Facebook and Myspace the time and effort needed for such a task is significantly reduced. Thus, I am not surprised at all that police officers and high school administrators have begun to exploit Facebook and Myspace as a means to get “inside information” about their students’ activities. This is a natural, predictable step. I agree that it is can be an extremely valuable tool if used correctly. I am for the use of utilizing all possible sources of information including Facebook and MySpace in order to investigate a school crime. Its potential to curb gang violence and assist in cases of run-away children justifies its use. However the protests of students do have merit and I sympathize with their concerns. The administrators and police officers attest that they do not systematically browse Facebook profiles and I think that it is important that they continue not to. It would be problematic if administrators routinely checked Facebook and punished behavior they deemed inappropriate such as a student venting about a teacher they disliked. Familial sovereignty must be maintained and the school does not have the right to punish students on grounds of morality.

While it does seem “unfair” the ability to monitor students on-line activity is far too attractive for administration/police to stop. It is however an invaluable lesson in personal responsibility. Hidden behind a computer screen, it is difficult to imagine any repercussions for ones on-line activity. I can recall my mentor during my summer internship advising me to block my profile and censor my pictures. She relayed the story of a college graduate whose full time offer was revoked after pictures of her dressed as a Playboy Bunny surfaced at work. This incident along with this article emphasizes the importance of taking responsibility for on-line actions.