Privacy SOS

FBI to police: use social media to convict others, not yourselves

The FBI wants police officers to use social media to spy on us, but cautions that they take care not to reveal too much about their own lives on Twitter or Facebook.

A blog on the bureau’s website describes how officers can use information posted by suspects to convict them, incriminate their associates, and ultimately even apprehend them:

Social media can provide an invaluable source of information for investigators. Criminals will use social media to share information about their whereabouts and those of their associates. They also have been known to share photos and videos of their criminal acts. Such electronic information can help apprehend fugitives, single out associate suspects, link individuals to street gangs, and provide evidence of criminal activity.

But the FBI warns cops that the social media sword cuts both ways, and can not only make officers and their departments look bad, but also potentially interfere with prosecutions. "Mixing their personal and social lives with their professional ones can bring discredit to [officers] and their departments," the FBI warns.

Officers posting information about how sleepy they are on duty can call into question their fitness for duty in the event of a deadly force situation or a serious traffic accident. Additionally, posting photos of themselves with seized drug evidence can be harmful to the ongoing prosecution of a case because prosecutors should be consulted before evidence is shared with the public. Though officers may face disciplinary proceedings if their actions are discovered, departments may rely on a “conduct unbecoming” regulation and not a specific policy regarding social media.

When exposed, inappropriate information may lead to undesirable attention from the media and other parties. In one such instance, a defense attorney in Texas found the MySpace page of his client’s arresting officer. The page listed the officer’s occupation as “super hero/serial killer” and included expressions of interest in intense violence and graphic pictures of women with carvings in their skin. The defense attorney claimed this was evidence of the officer’s excessive force against his client.

As you can see, the FBI doesn't seem at all concerned about the fact that a police department employs an officer who harbors a disturbing interest in misogynistic violence. The bureau seems to be worried about the appearance of dereliction of duty instead of the dereliction itself: being sleepy on the job is one thing — admitting it and thereby inviting a lawsuit is something else entirely!

The message seems to be that in the interest of keeping up appearances, departments should take care to protect their officers from public sunlight. The police don't want to be confronted with "undesirable attention" — heaven forbid, they may have to fire someone! — so should simply warn their officers to keep quiet about themselves online. One momentary lapse of discretion could interfere with locking someone up based on their speech, after all!

Read more about law enforcement and social media surveillance.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.