We've all heard it a hundred times: be careful of the personal information you post on Facebook and other social networking sites.
By now, we all know that criminals can use information about your whereabouts (such as your vacation dates) to locate an empty house. And hopefully we're all aware that stalkers or predators on networking sites can potentially obtain information about you and, even more disturbingly, about your children.
But did you know the Federal Government may now be using your Facebook, Myspace or Twitter accounts to check up on you?
According to an internal Justice Department document that surfaced in a recent lawsuit, federal law enforcement agents are now going undercover with false online profiles to communicate with individuals and gather private information.
A San Francisco-based civil liberties group, The Electronic Frontier Foundation, obtained the 33-page government document that revealed this, when it sued the Justice Department and five other agencies in federal court.
U.S. agents are now logging on to social networking sites covertly in order to identify a target's friends or relatives, to browse private information such as postings, personal photographs or videos, and even to "chat" or send messages to a suspect who believes he or she is communicating with someone else.
Is this legal? That may be debatable. The answer likely depends on the circumstances of each individual "investigation", but there is no question that it is being done.
Facebook's rules specify that users "will not provide any false personal information on Facebook, or create an account for anyone other than yourself without permission." MySpace rules require that information for accounts be "truthful and accurate". Twitter's rules prohibit users from sending deceptive or false information.
But federal investigators, and possibly other law enforcement agencies, now routinely use networking sites to check out alibis by comparing stories told to police with posts or tweets sent at the same time. And, online photos showing individuals at certain locations or with jewelry, guns or expensive cars or homes - can be used to link a suspect or even their innocent friends to a crime.
Some federal agencies, such as the IRS, do not allow their investigators to use deception or fake accounts to get information. However, the Department of Justice, which includes the FBI, does not have such a prohibition.
The bottom line is that with very little effort anyone, even the Federal Government, can post a "familiar looking" user profile, prompting you to unknowingly grant them access to all of your personal information on Facebook and other networking sites.
Keep this in mind the next time you grant someone access to your personal information via a social networking site.
For more information on how to protect yourself from overreaching law enforcement officials that are checking you out on-line, contact an experienced computer crime defense attorney today.