Facebook Status Leads FBI to Make Arrest in UK

Death threats, multi-governmental law enforcement, and Facebook have come together in a high profile case in the UK. Late last week, a potential killer was arrested before he could attack his fellow students at a UK technical college. But there was no metal detector, guard dogs, or old-fashioned sleuthing involved – sophisticated search technology was the real detective in this case, with the FBI acting on evidence from a highly irregular string of death threats and other disturbing Facebook status updates on the suspect’s online profile.

It appears as though the FBI has a list of keywords, phrases and behavioral indicators that they are monitoring online. According to the BBC, the 19-year-old man arrested (and subsequently released on bail) had recently posted the following on his Facebook profile:

a picture of a gun being held above a scrawled note, which read “tomorrow – last day of school” and went on to mention bullies and “leaving this world.”

The FBI notified local law enforcement in the Merseyside, UK area who eventually closed down the school until the suspect could be apprehended.

The threat that was averted could have been of monumental proportions, and many lives may have been saved by this international effort. However, it does raise questions about privacy and information on social networks. No information is available about how the FBI accessed the suspect’s profile page with the image of the gun and death threat, but it is reasonable to assume that the man hadn’t “friended” any agents. If that is indeed the case, his information was accessed by law enforcement without his knowledge.

Other arrests, lawsuits, and criminal investigations have been made based on information found on social networks. A YouTube stunt car video led to arrests in Dubai, and Courtney Love was sued not too long ago for libel on Twitter.

When it comes to information shared on social networks, it appears as though trends favor disclosure of information rather than privacy, at least for the time being. Despite all of the recent uproar over Facebook privacy settings, law enforcement is still able to access social networks for investigation purposes. Typically, courts are reactive rather than proactive, so we can expect several more cases like this one before true precedents are set and a clear understanding of information privacy is disseminated to the public.

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