Social networking Web sites such as Friendster, MySpace, Facebook and Twitter are a common and widespread phenomena in today's world.

What Is Social Networking?

A social network service is created to build online communities of people who share interests. They are Web- based and provide a variety of ways for users to interact, such as e-mail and instant messaging services. Social networking has encouraged new ways to communicate and share information. Such Web sites are used by millions of people every day.

The popularity of social networking sites has grown tremendously in the last few years. They help people stay in touch. They help small businesses connect with other businesses and clients. They give people the chance to network with people they'd never be able to meet otherwise.

However, with the growing popularity and mainstream use of these sites, there's also a dangerous side. There have been many hackers and scammers. People can create fake profiles. It becomes easier to break privacy and copyright laws. And most recently, these sites have become an avenue for crimes. Criminals have even used social networking sites to boast about crimes they've committed.

Digital Criminal Acts and Cyber Confessions

To stay connected, users of social networking Web sites typically announce their whereabouts, and events such as births, graduations and parties. Lately, criminals have been announcing their crimes on the Web sites.

In South Carolina, the police were able to track down a bank robber after he posted a message about the crime on his MySpace page. Joseph Wade Northington robbed a bank in North Augusta, S.C., and made off with $3,924. Northington updated his profile with the message "One in the head still ain't dead!!!!!! On tha run for robbin a bank Love all of yall."1 He also changed his status to "Wanted." He was turned in by an acquaintance that recognized him on surveillance photos released to the networking site. However, the incriminating evidence Northington posted online will likely be used in court and undermine any legal defense he may have.

Crimes Resulting from Information Gathered on Social Networking Sites

A family in Arizona had their home burglarized after they twittered their vacation plans. Israel Hyman and his wife use Twitter to promote their home-based video business, IzzyVideo.com and have nearly 2,000 followers on the site. It's possible that the status message led to the burglary by broadcasting their travel dates on Twitter.

Pictures on Social Networking Sites Being Exploited

In most social networking Web sites, after you post a picture in your profile page, you can't keep track of where it ends up.

In the summer of 2007, then Miss New Jersey Amy Polumbo's private Facebook photos were made public in the tabloids. The pictures were taken as part of a blackmail attempt and showed her in racy poses with her boyfriend drinking alcohol. A controversy over these photos erupted, causing the Miss America organization to consider dethroning her.

In January 2009, a personal photo that a Texas teenager uploaded on Flickr ended up being used by Virgin Mobile for an Australian advertisement. The teen, Allison Chang, and her mother sued, claiming her right of publicity had been exploited and that the use of her photo violated licensing laws.

Similarly, Allison Stokke was a high school pole vaulter who became a sex symbol and internet sensation after the blog WithLeather.com posted her photo. The photo was taken during a competition and showed her resting with her pole across her shoulder in her standard track and field uniform. After the photo was featured online by various bloggers, Stokke received thousands of MySpace messages and e-mails and had a competition video posted on YouTube.

The Washington Post reports that the photo eventually found its way to Matt Ufford of WithLeather.com, who wrote, "meet pole vaulter Allison Stokke. . . . Hubba hubba and other grunting sounds."2 The original photographer threatened to sue Ufford and someone even created a fake Facebook page for Stokke which was eventually taken down.

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Tagged as: Criminal Law, social networking websites, criminal lawyer