Hey Lets be “Friends”: Why Police Need to be Careful with Personal Cell Phones

Well it happened again. You know what we are talking about. A police officer either issues a ticket or arrests someone, and the suspect concludes it is a good idea to go to Facebook and make a threat against the officer.  This time it happened in Jackson County, MI, when Joey Jason Holliman allegedly posted a threatening message on Officer Michael Strickland’s timeline shortly after being ticketed Wednesday.

We don’t know how Holliman located Officer Strickland’s profile.  It may be that Officer Strickland didn’t set his privacy settings properly. For instance, he may have allowed search engines to index his profile, a feature that can be turned off rather easily.

But then again it might not have anything to do with the settings. Let us explain. About two weeks ago, I started seeing individuals appear in my suggested friends page that should not be there. For instance, offenders that I supervised and had sent to prison. Todd and I discussed how this might happen. We ruled out that I had searched for them with my profile or I had their telephone number in my personal address book.  I theorized that they may have searched for me. Even though they couldn’t find me as my privacy setting was locked down, Facebook, thought I might want to connect with them, so it suggested them as possible “friends.” How helpful! (We haven’t ruled that theory out yet.)

However, it appears there is another possibility that is even more troubling. If two Facebook users connect to Facebook from the same IP subnet or they are using Facebook on their cell phone from near-overlapping geocodes, the social networking site assumes the users are “friends” or potential “friends.” Yep, you guessed. It then populates the suggested “friends” to both users.  How nice!

In the ticket incident above, if both Holliman and Officer Stickland had cell phones on, with Facebook connecting to the Internet, they would have likely been using an overlapping geocode.  Even if Holliman’s didn’t remember Stickland’s name, Facebook would likely have suggested him as a potential “friend.”

Many of us carry our personal cell phones on our person in the field.  We also have them in our office.   But by allowing Facebook to connect to the Internet from our cell phones, we are exposing ourselves to “friend” suggestions from those we would prefer not know we even have a Facebook profile.  How many times do those of us in law enforcement go into high crime areas with criminals nearby with cell phones on their person? How many times do suspects have cell phones on their person in police waiting areas or outside courtrooms? Do we really want our Facebook profile offered up as a “friend” suggestion to EVERYONE?  Unfortunately, Facebook does not offer restrictions on appearing in “friend” suggestion lists.

It would seem the solution is to turn off one’s geolocation  (Suggestions can be found here). But, this would seem only to limit Facebook from sharing it with other users. This suggestion does not prevent Facebook from gathering your geolocation and using it for its own purposes, such as in suggesting “friends” in the same area.  The really only secure why to stop this is not have Facebook installed on your phone OR at a minimum limiting your cell phone/Internet usage. For instance, turning it on when needed and turning if off when not in use.  This way it is not consistently connected to the Internet, looking for “friends.”  Additionally, limit or eliminate your cell phone/Internet usage in “high “risk” areas, such as where you might run into someone you are going to arrest, are arresting, and/or did arrest. Finally, individuals involved in law enforcement must be continually vigilant to how their personal devices may be inadvertently “leaking” information to other devices in a way that poses a risk to them and their loved ones. Of course, that is really sound advice for all of us, regardless of our occupations. On that note I left a cigar lit somewhere.

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