Facebook.com Used In Investigations

Princeton Public Safety officers use Facebook photos against students

It’s become a college ritual: go out, party hard, post pictures on facebook.com. It isn’t unusual for many students, including those at Harvard, to post photographic evidence of themselves doing stupid and sometimes illegal things—but they may not realize just who is looking at these photos.

An article in The Daily Princetonian on March 9 revealed that the Princeton Department of Public Safety has used facebook.com in investigating student-related incidents at the New Jersey school.

Students who had posted pictures on Facebook of themselves climbing buildings were confronted by Public Safety officers, who said they had viewed the online photos, according to the article.

“If we are investigating a case that involves campus safety or security or the safety of a member of our community, we have an obligation to use every tool available to try to bring that investigation to some conclusion,” said Steven J. Healy, the director of Princeton’s Public Safety.

Public Safety Deputy Director Charles Davall initially denied last month that his department uses Facebook in investigations, but told the Princetonian last week that the site is used for following leads. Davall declined to comment when reached by phone this week.

“The limit that is placed on the department is that we do not use [Facebook] to initiate investigations,” Healy said.

Healy added that the department’s policy requires all officers who have Facebook accounts to disclose their professional position, so as not to intentionally deceive students. Several of the officers are undergraduate and graduate students at other universities, and must identify themselves as Public Safety workers on the site.

Healy said that due to the public nature of facebook.com, he did not know how often his department had accessed the site.

In a second incident, reported in the Princetonian, a student contacted about a garbage violation had told officials that the excess trash came from a party he had hosted. The student, senior Aaron Dawes, said an officer then told him that the department had proof of the party, and produced photos from the event that had been posted on Facebook.

Davall told the Princetonian that he did not recall Dawes’s story and could not comment.

Anyone with an e-mail address ending in .edu can register for a Facebook account, including Harvard University Police Department (HUPD) officers.

HUPD Spokesman Steven G. Catalano said the department would not comment on investigative procedures.

Healy points out that Facebook is a public site. “Facebook.com is an open public website just like Google or eBay,” he said. “We don’t use it to monitor student behaviors. We only go on that website if an investigative tip leads us there.”

Healy added that the department has “better things to do” than monitor college kids online.

“Users have complete control over who can see their information,” said facebook.com spokesman Christopher R. Hughes ’06. “We’re interested in investing our users with the autonomy to decide what information they want to share about themselves and exactly who they want to share it with,”

“Not everyone can see your profile,” reiterated Hughes. “You make the decision about who you want to have access.”

—Staff writer Rebecca L. Ledford can be reached at rledford@fas.harvard.edu.