Technologist - The FindLaw Legal Technology Blog

Court Makes Obvious Ruling: Cops Can Use Fake Social Media Accounts

Here's some non-news: Cops use social media to catch criminals. But it's not just criminals broadcasting their misdeeds to the wider world, unimpeded by privacy settings or discretion.

No, cops can and do make fake profiles to stalk criminals without being detected. If a cop walks into a bar, pretends to be a bartender, and overhears a confession, that's not a constitutional violation, is it? That's basically what we have here -- cops posing as somebody else to gather intel.

No Warrant Required

Daniel Gatson allegedly stole millions of dollars worth of jewelry and posted pictures of the loot on Instagram. Police discovered this evidence thorough a little bit of deception, the court explained.

"As part of their investigation into Gatson and other co-conspirators, law enforcement officers used an undercover account to become Instagram 'friends' with Gatson. Gatson accepted the request to become friends. As a result, law enforcement officers were able to view photos and other information Gatson posted to his Instagram account. No search warrant is required for the consensual sharing of this type of information," United States District Judge William Martini wrote in an opinion published last week.

It's pretty clear Fourth Amendment law and common sense: Don't expect social media to stay private.

How It's Done

A couple of years ago, after word leaked that the New York Police Department was using fake social media accounts to monitor suspects and gather evidence, we wrote a piece on how this is done via social engineering.

The short version is this: Create a profile of a good-looking person. Add friends of the target -- as many as possible. Wait for a few to add you, then add the target. Not only do you have your "fake" good looks going for you, but you have the credibility of already being friends with the target's friends.

Related Resources: