by Mary Agramonte

Social media has become, for many of us, a central part of our lives. We use Facebook to share and view photos of friends and family, and even to catch up on daily news. We use Snapchat to send live photos or short clips and videos to those in our circle. Instagram exists to view photos of friends and strangers, and even to gain inspiration for food, travel, and lifestyle.

These social networking sites are used and enjoyed by people in all walks of life. Consequently, as the use by the general population increases, so does use for those engaged in drug dealing, gang activity, and other criminal acts. For this reason, social media and apps once thought to be private are becoming the key pieces of evidence as law enforcement is obtaining this information through search warrants. Search warrant allow police to conduct searches of people and their belongings for evidence of a crime and they are now being used to gain entry into your Facebook, Snapchat, and other sites.

Snapchat has recently come out to say that 350 million Snaps are sent every single day. Before these fleeting photos are opened, they exist on Snapchat’s server awaiting for the person on the other end to open it.  Some unopened Snaps, they’ve admitted, have been handed over to law enforcement through search warrants.

Facebook is no different and law enforcement is using the site regularly to investigate crimes. While a law enforcement agency is free to look at your public site, they are even able to obtain a search warrant even for the private aspects of your account. A recent case in the 11th Circuit, United States v. Blake (link– http://media.ca11.uscourts.gov/opinions/pub/files/201513395.pdf) , involved search warrants for email and Facebook accounts.  Law enforcement in Blake sought essentially every piece of data on the person’s Facebook account. The court stated that the search warrants were overly broad and stated they must still be specific and limited in scope. The data was still fair evidence despite this, as the officers relied on the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule, and the State was allowed to use the evidence from their Facebook account against them.

There tends to be a false sense of privacy for those engaged in sending Snaps, Facebooking, or Instagramming. These ‘private’ sites and photos can and do become to subject of search warrants in law enforcement investigations, and the biggest piece of evidence in a case might just end up being something you posted  or sent with the belief it would remain private.