Students aren’t the only ones in town who Facebook. 

Angela Cesere

Facebook.com, the online college networking community used obsessively by freshman girl and senior boy alike, is also being used as an investigative tool by law enforcement.

Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Diane Brown said she is not sure whether DPS officers use the site, but said it is likely.

“I would presume that campus law enforcement in many places – including DPS – use it,” Brown said. “It’s smart for them to use that.”

The Ann Arbor Police Department also uses the site.

Kinesiology sophomore Dan Rais, a member of the men’s gymnastics team, was at a house party with several of his teammates last fall when someone flung a beer bottle at another party guest standing near him. The victim suffered cuts to his face and went to University Hospital for treatment. 

According to a police report The Michigan Daily obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, AAPD detective Noel Scott contacted him asking for information on the incident.

When the detective came to his house for questioning, Rais noticed that he was holding a printout of his Facebook profile.

Rais said the investigator did not present or elaborate on the document, but the sophomore speculated that his profile could have been used to match him to the description of the suspect given by an eyewitness at the party.

Several hours after Rais was questioned, the victim checked Rais’s Facebook profile, the report said. The victim said Rais’s picture did not match the assailant.

Campus police in Pennsylvania used Facebook profiles and groups at Penn State University to identify students who rushed the football field after the school defeated Ohio State.          

In the Penn State incident, campus police used profile images and a Facebook group of students claiming to have rushed the field, along with normal crime-catching tools, such as photos from stadium cameras.

According to Tyrone Parham, assistant director of PSU campus police, two officers were assaulted during the rowdy celebration. Pepper spray and other police maneuvers were needed to suppress the crowd.

PSU’s campus police identified about 50 people who rushed the field after the game. The campus police then contacted the suspected students, and many confessed to their actions.

Parham said it is easy for officers to access the website because many possess university e-mail accounts – the prerequisite to signing on to the site. 

“It’s the same as someone posting this type of group on a general-purpose bulletin board,” he said.

Using information from public web spaces is not uncommon to law enforcement in general.  Cases against pedophiles and child pornographers using information posted on the Internet have been upheld in court, Parham noted.

He added that Facebook profiles are not primary police tools and are used in special circumstances.

Brown said students have also been stalked through Facebook, but no case of harassment at the University has been reported to DPS. 

“People are failing to recognize that they are putting their information out for public use,” she said.

Faculty and administration can also legally use the site to gain information, Facebook spokesman Chris Hughes said in an e-mail.

“It’s certainly not what we designed Facebook to be used for, but there’s not much we can do about it,” Hughes said.

“If users do not want faculty or staff to see their profile information, all they have to do is go to the “My Privacy” section and change their settings,” Hughes said.

The privacy section – easily accessed through a link on the left side of the website – contains ways for Facebookers to control who can access their information.

Users can restrict certain account types such as faculty, staff or alumni from seeing their Facebook information. 

Also available is the option to block specific users from profile access.

“(Facebook) is geared toward our age group – not adults,” said LSA freshman Jamie Epstein, who has 684 Facebook friends. 

Epstein has gained campus fame among this year’s freshman class for her avid use of the site. She said she believes authorities should use other avenues for finding reliable information. 

“They have to realize a lot of the stuff on Facebook is a joke,” she said.

Facebook has also been used to turn the tables on criminals.

Brown said that earlier this year a University student who was assaulted used Facebook to do some detective work of his own. 

The student identified his alleged assailant from a Facebook picture and turned in his findings to DPS to be used in the official investigation.

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