I have been a personal user of Facebook for several years now. I confess, however, that until recently I have used a nom de guerre. I apologize to Facebook for violating its policy, but you see I had my reasons.
During this anonymous phase of my Facebook existence, a colleague occasionally would ask when I was going to join nearly every other person on the planet and finally sign up. I would shrug and change the subject.
But then the private investigative company I manage opened up its official Facebook page, and this gave me the encouragement I needed to begin using my real name. It was not an easy decision to make—giving up the anonymity I had previously enjoyed—but if I didn’t come out and “like” my company, who else was going to do it? After this coming out, I set about befriending the many students and clients I had been shunning all these years. Altogether it has been a liberating experience, but it has also caused me to feel like I have a multiple-personality disorder.
As a private investigator, I see the Internet differently than most people do—or I did until I decided to stop hiding behind the pseudonym. For me and many of my colleagues, Facebook and other social networking websites are, first and foremost, a rich source of potentially valuable information that might be relevant in one way or another to our investigations. If you’re not an investigator, social media sites are primarily vehicles for connecting with people. I used to find this outlook naïve, but I have gradually come to learn the technology’s true value. I confess it hasn’t been easy. At first I assumed that sharing information is antithetical to the mindset of being an investigator. Let me explain.
It seems we can’t go more than a month without hearing of someone being embarrassed, disgraced or even fired for something they posted on a social networking website, whether it’s Obama’s speechwriter, Jon Favreau, cupping the breast of a cardboard cutout of Hillary Clinton or Octavia Nasr, then CNN’s Senior Editor of Mideast Affairs, tweeting positively about Hezbollah. The National Labor Relations Board recently offered employees some protection from themselves by ruling that they are permitted to write disparagingly online about their employers without fear of adverse action, provided the writing is done in concert with other employees. But what of those sex-laden snapshots or the fact that an employee “likes” the Facebook page titled “drunkenly stealing random useless objects” (which, by the way, has over 91,000 fans!)? The fact of the matter is that people of all walks of life have been “busted” in a sense by assuming that they enjoy privacy or anonymity on a social networking site.
Ever since I started sending out my friendship requests, some employees of the law firms I work for—people who I’ve been friendly with for years—have sheepishly asked me about my intentions. Would I divulge the content of their Facebook pages to the partners, who I’m also friendly with? Were my friendship requests nothing but a “pretext” to delve into their private lives or perhaps to discover whether they are spending too much time on the Internet?
On one level, I understand, these are common concerns whenever one lets a coworker into the sanctuary of his or her quasi-private online life. I write quasi-private life because the investigator in me knows that almost nothing having to do with social media is ever truly private; even the information that many assume is sacrosanct may still be released with a subpoena. I also recognize that trust is a central issue in friendships among colleagues in any industry, not just private investigation.
Of course, I assured my new Facebook friends I will respect their privacy, because that’s what friends do. But being an investigator makes the duality of uses for these media much more pronounced, because, bluntly put, it is an investigator’s job to pry into people’s quasi-private lives and use that information against them. In other words, there is good reason to be wary of befriending an investigator on Facebook when it comes to concern about one’s privacy.
To illustrate my point, I had lunch with one of my business partners a few weeks ago, and we discussed a recent case where he used a Twitter search to identify a witness in an assault at a private event. The witness tweeted about the assault as it happened, and identifying this person and subsequently searching his Facebook page helped my partner find the party’s entire guest list. Naturally, much interviewing and subpoenaing ensued—and once again social media played a critical role in an investigation.
My partner’s case is not unusual. Tweets and status updates are now standard fodder for investigators throughout the country. In fact, I would venture to say that social media plays some role in the majority of cases now investigated by my company. It is in this light that I grew accustomed to viewing social media like a lion might see a grassland panorama. Where most people probably see sunshine and frolicking gazelles, I just saw one big hunting ground, complete with personal information about subjects that can’t be found anywhere else. There is no denying that Facebook and other social media are a very rich source of nutrients—I mean, information—that could be relevant in one way or another to an investigation.
But we investigators are humans too! I crave social interactions just like the next person. Facebook recently helped me reconnect with my best friend from elementary school. Twitter has given me instant access to the latest in news in my areas of interest and has afforded me a forum to share some of my knowledge with like-minded people too. There is no denying that social media are now an integral part of a great number of people’s lives, and they are an integral part of my life too—and not just for the dirt it gives me on people I am investigating. Simply put, I’m not sure how I ever lived without the sense of connectivity I’m now feeling in my brave new social world.
It was in this spirit that my company created its Facebook page. I envisioned a place where my partners and I could learn a little more about the people we work with and where our employees, if they choose, could share a little more about themselves when they’re not wearing their investigator hats. I’m addressing residual skepticism one colleague at a time.
But I still wonder whether investigators can really have it both ways. Can we befriend our employees and clients, continue to maintain their confidence—and also continue, with a clear conscious, to exploit social media for our investigations?
I am one private investigator who is banking that we can.
Philip A. Becnel is the managing partner of Dinolt Becnel & Wells Investigative Group LLC and is the author of Private Investigator Entry Level (02E), an introductory textbook on conducting private investigations. Philip is a licensed private investigator in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, DC.
His book may be found at Amazon, among other venues.
Link to purchase book: http://www.amazon.com/Private-Investigator-Entry-Level-Investigations/dp/1440194114
Link to company: http://www.dinolt.com