Updates you’ve posted to Facebook and Twitter can present obvious problems when you’re searching for a job or starting a new relationship. But a growing number of legal cases suggests this may be just the beginning—divorce lawyers are mining information on social networks to reveal cases of infidelity, hidden assets, and other “secret” aspects of a person’s life.
Frank Rudewicz, principal and counsel for advisory services for Marcum LLP, a firm of accountants, advisors, and investigators, says that information gleaned from blogs, social networks, and photo-sharing sites can provide crucial evidence for legal cases.
For example: one 38-year-old man hired Marcum to look into his estranged wife’s finances, because he suspected that she might have hidden sources of income. The investigators found public pictures on her Facebook profile that showed her in Aruba with friends and dining at the Ritz-Carlton in Maui. By following her public posts on Twitter, they also learned that her family owned a successful restaurant, and that she was involved in expanding the business. The investigators used these leads to reveal all the wife’s assets.
Social networking technologies have forced people to learn how to negotiate the tricky waters of job search and relationships—all complicated by the “permanent record” created on sites such as Facebook and Twitter. And while it can be awkward for a new love to see the residue of your old love scattered across a Facebook page, it’s even more awkward to untangle these ties when you’re getting divorced.
A 2010 survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that 81 percent of divorce attorneys had increased their use of social media to gather evidence over the past five years. They named Facebook as their main source, followed by MySpace and Twitter.
Rudewicz says it’s rare to find “a smoking gun” this way, but notes that “social media is one link combined with all your other investigative sources. It often provides the lead.” In many cases, Rudewicz says, he uses social media to follow up on other evidence.
A subject’s social network data can be mined in a variety of ways. On Twitter and Facebook, he says, it’s not uncommon to find spouses openly discussing affairs, or revealing that they’re not where they’re supposed to be. “They’re putting it out there just like they’re putting out a product,” he says.
Even if a subject is cautious, there are other ways to get useful information. Foursquare, for example, keeps posts limited to friends, but many people connect their Foursquare feed to Twitter, which is public. Investigators can also view an estranged spouse’s Facebook wall via a mutual friend’s account.
Rudewicz says he has found hidden assets by searching for a subject���s phone number on Craigslist, revealing, for example, posts in which the subject was trying to sell valuable antiques. Search engines designed specifically for Twitter or blogs can often yield valuable data as well, he adds.
It can be difficult for estranged spouses to protect their information. Questions of etiquette may interfere with the instinct to keep data private by defriending a spouse, says Ilana Gershon, assistant professor in the department of communication and culture at Indiana University and the author of the book The Break-Up 2.0: Disconnecting over New Media.
Gershon adds, “Even if they defriended each other, they often had friends who were still Facebook friends with their ex continue to check on their ex-spouses’ profiles for them. Their friends would let them know what changes their ex was willing to record on Facebook.” Gershon has found that there was a tendency not to remove an ex’s friends or family, because of worries that the action would seem hostile.
It would be dangerous to rely entirely on information extracted from social networking updates, says Danah Boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research. “Communications acts are contextual, and it’s pretty easy to misinterpret what’s happening,” Boyd says. “This will be a new challenge for family court judges, but it’s not clear yet how it will all play out.”
Whatever the legal implications, it’s easy to reveal far more than intended through social sites—and to leave the record there for all to see. In terms of keeping information private, Rudewicz says, “The mob had it right—the only way they communicated was verbally, in the middle of the street.”