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Police Are Solving Crimes Using Status Updates

Teens and young adults today document every aspect of their lives in selfies and social media posts. Tweets and Facebook statuses update you on where your friends are and how they’re feeling, or how they’re reacting to the events around them, and Instagram shows you your friends at their best-or worst-depending on their mood.

Our social media pages have become life-action records of what we do every day, constantly updating and adapting to encompass any change in activity, from a new hairstyle or outfit of the day to a major relationship change or move.

In recent news reports, police have been using social media accounts to catch a new kind of criminal-the selfie-taking young adults who post one too many incriminating pictures or posts. Take, for instance, the arrest of Tarod Thornhill earlier this year.

Police caught the 17-year-old shooter at the Monroeville Mall near Pittsburgh after they matched his clothing from the surveillance footage to a selfie he had posted earlier. And last year, in December, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, the man who murdered two New York City police officers, was arrested when investigators saw a post to his Instagram captioned “I’m Putting Wings On Pigs Today.”

These posts, shared online, helped police ID their suspects and make compelling cases for charging them. Online information like this is fair game in a criminal investigation if the public can access it or if a friend with access reports the posts to the police.

Are Social Media Accounts Really “Private”?

Most social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Snapchat, etc.) have privacy settings designed to allow users to filter who can see their posts and how unaffiliated users view their profiles.

Some sites have the option to make an account public so that everyone-even if they are not your friend-can see everything you do. Public accounts are great ways to ensure you never miss a connection, but they can provide strangers with a wealth of information about your day-to-day activities.

The public feature is tricky for users to protect against because policies and updates are constantly changing how these site administrators handle your personal information. If you choose to make your account private, some identifying information such as a picture, your full name and potentially your location could be used to help users find you on the site. Often, the site controls what this information is and how it is used.

Additionally, in apps like Snapchat, where the draw is the ability to send a photo that will be deleted in seconds, the privacy laws are even more complex. Viewers can take screenshots of a person’s message, and that image can be shared virtually anywhere, even if the sender intended it to be private (and destroyed).

Our society’s reliance on social media and the mentality that taking a quick selfie is the best way to start or end any activity is getting these kids into even more trouble and providing the police with all the evidence they need to press charges.

At Rehmeyer & Allat, Attorneys at Law, we represent clients who may be involved in criminal investigations due to online posts and social media updates. To discuss your case, contact a State College criminal defense attorney today.