To Catch a Thief on Facebook

Khayree Billingslea, 19, a freshman at Arizona State University, was given an unpleasant surprise when police showed up at his honors dorm room, handcuffed him and escorted him out of the building.

He and some friends had sneaked into a closed dining facility over Thanksgiving weekend and stolen cereal and soda. But it wasn't a fellow student who turned them in. It was Facebook.

Officials visited the students' profile pages on the social networking site and compared the surveillance images with their pictures on their Facebook profiles.

The ASU Police Department said they use social media as a tool to find leads and involve the community.

Caught on Facebook Play

Although charges of burglary against Billingslea and his friends were dropped, he said he does not like the idea of police looking him up on social media Web sites. But he does acknowledge that all of the information he publishes is up for grabs.

"If businesses use it to hire employees, why shouldn't the police be able to access it?" Billingslea said. "It's public. It's on the Internet."

Crime prevention officer Brian Kiefling called it a way to keep up with the times.

"We need to adapt with them," Kiefling said. "We're still doing things the old-school way, with fliers that students pick up and then they'll just throw it away."

Kiefling set up an "ASU PD" page on Facebook last year to make students feel more comfortable asking questions to police about university policies. But so far, the page only has about 100 fans.

Big Brother?

Billingslea, who admitted to taking the items from the cafeteria, understands why not all students would want police combing through their online profiles.

"It is, in a sense, sort of [like] 'big brother,' but only because of our perception of Facebook," Billingslea said. "It's not something that's private, but we have the feeling that it is."

Lauren Peikoff, 21, a journalism and political science major at Arizona State University, has not had any run-ins with the law. She sees Facebook as just another tool at their disposal.

"I don't necessarily think it's [like] 'big brother,'" Peikoff said. "The information is out there, you can elect to put or not put whatever you want."

If students do not want law enforcement to see it, don't post it, Kiefling said.

"They don't have to have a Facebook page," he said. "By opening themselves up, they've lost all of that privacy that they think that they have. If you want to be private, then I wouldn't open up a Facebook or MySpace [page]."

Privacy settings on Facebook allow users to hide their own photo albums. A user can make the uploaded photos visible only to friends, to the entire network they belong to, such as their university or to no one but themselves.

If a person posts pictures of a second person, the first person may "tag" the second, meaning connect his or her name to the photo. The second person then can untag himself or herself to remove the attached name. But the picture remains on the Internet.

"I wouldn't be too happy about police looking at my profile, but I try and limit the information viewable, like pictures my friends tag me in, because that's not my choice," Peikoff said.

Police Departments Turn to Facebook

ASU's is not the only police department using social networks in such a way.

Tyrone Parham, deputy chief officer with the Pennsylvania State University Police Department, counted at least three recent incidents in which Facebook helped his department catch a criminal.

In one case after a home football game, many students, some apparently intoxicated, rushed the field and several police officers said they were assaulted. What they later discovered on Facebook led to the arrest of the students who were involved.

"We were able to look at Facebook pages and there was a specific page set up for people that rushed the field," Parham said. "So we were able to identify a number of people trespassing on the field."

The University of Richmond, in Richmond, Va., set up a Facebook page to post crime prevention tips and even added an "Ask An Officer" section so that students could interact with officers.

Other police departments outside of universities also are utilizing Facebook.

Police in Auburn, Maine, posted surveillance video on their own Facebook profile page that allowed community members to help police track down suspects.

In another case, police in Medina, Ohio, searched Facebook for local residents wanted on warrants, which led to at least one arrest.

Beware Too Much Information

While Parham said the Pennsylvania State University police use Web sites like Facebook only on a case-by-case basis, he warned that he often sees students posting too much information on their profile pages, such as home addresses and phone numbers. He advised students to take advantage of the privacy settings to prevent personal information from being published.

"It's like a regular bulletin board on the grocery store or the student union," Parham said. "It's public information. Anyone that has access to the Internet and has a Facebook account has privilege to anything that's open."

Kiefling agreed that Facebook and other sites, like MySpace and Twitter, can be a breeding ground for identity theft. His advice is plain and simple.

"Don't accept people [as friends on Facebook] that you don't know," Kiefling said.

"I try to be as conscious as I can," Peikoff said. "I have limited profiles for people I don't want seeing all my photos and statuses."

In addition to using these sites for identification, photo lineups and personal information gathering, ASU police created a series of podcasts to spread awareness about on-campus issues such as bike theft and sexual assault.

But Kiefling said students don't need to worry about police "stalking" their profiles.

"We don't have the staff to just go through students' Facebook pages looking for pictures of them drinking, things like that," Kiefling said.

Peikoff agreed that since employers use Facebook to search for potential employees, other organizations should be able to use it if the site can be useful to them.

"I see it as just another way for people, and in this case, police, to gather information and to help them." contributor Lindsey Reiser is a member of the Arizona State University ABC News on Campus bureau.