Can the police search social media profiles? YES and they do
Can the police search my social media profile? Yes and they do. Police regularly search social media for evidence of crimes, to see who you associate with, to see if they can get you to admit to crimes. CNN reports that 4 out of 5 police have used social media during an investigation. That number is probably higher than anyone wants to admit.
Why are the police looking at your pictures and posts on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter? If you are a suspect in a crime, the police want to know who your friends are, where you've been, or worse - evidence of a crime.
We've handled cases where people have been arrested for posting pictures of themselves on Facebook holding guns - and the guns were stolen. We've seen people arrested for domestic violence crimes because of threats they've posted on Twitter. We've handled cases where a high school student posted a vague threat on Twitter, and his school went into lock down for his alleged threat.
For police, looking at your social media profile can be like shooting fish in a barrel. There you are, in a club, surrounded by dollar bills and alcohol - and you're on probation.
The police cannot search your phone without a search warrant. However, nothing prevents the police from looking at your Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter page from their own computers.
The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects people from unreasonable searches by the police. The protections apply where there is a “reasonable expectation of privacy”. In order to search a cell phone, for instance, the police must obtain a warrant or consent from the phone's owner. The same is true of the many ways people can store data online which are not accessible to the public.
But, social media presents a problem. Public profiles do not require a warrant for the police to access, download, and later use for criminal prosecutions. While most expect their private profiles are protected, the terms and conditions of social media, like Facebook, may not meet that expectation.
Social media sites do not give you a Constitutional "reasonable expectation of privacy".
For example when you use Facebook, you are giving Facebook the right to:
- Track your computer
- Track your phone activity
- Tell other users where you are
And all of this without making an actual post. All of this information is becoming part of a public network.
The police can obtain information from social media in other ways, too. The Supreme Court has held that information you share with your friends is not protected by the Fourth Amendment. Any of them can be turned into an involuntary informant. Furthermore, the Court has held that police may create fake “friends” to monitor your social media activity. Even if you lock your social media account down, inadvertently accepting a fake friend can give police full access to your profile. Alternatively, the police can simply ask social media sites to provide anything they want.
Geotagging, is the location setting and time stamp put on all of the pictures you take on your cell phone. Most people realize that when the post pictures on social media, anyone can tell where the picture was taken. But did you realize that the police regularly look at you social media profile when you're being investigated for a crime?
You should remove the location data settings on your phone. Here's how to do it on an IPhone.
In short, there are major privacy problems with social media. It's safe to assume any information you put online can be obtained by police without a warrant. The police frequently use social media to their advantage. WARNING - be careful what you post. The police search social media. All the time.