Site used to aid investigations

By on November 10, 2005

That kid in your biology class isn’t the only person viewing your profile on Facebook.com — your Saturday night antics may have a wider audience than you ever imagined.



Facebook.com, a vastly popular online social network for college students, is one of many methods that the Penn State University Police are using to identify and prosecute fans who rushed the field after the Oct. 8 Ohio State game, said University Police Assistant Director Tyrone Parham.



"We are doing as much as we can to identify people who violated the law," Parham said. "Facebook is a method we are using, but it’s one of many — some pictures are on people’s personal Web pages and there are cameras inside the stadium that can zoom in pretty well."



Investigators are turning to the pictures posted in online photo albums, video footage from the field and member groups from Facebook to identify as many fans as possible, Parham said.



Emilie Romero (junior-international politics) said a university police officer called her Nov. 1 and said he had identified her as a student who had rushed the field after the Ohio State game from her photos on her Webshots, an online photo album she maintains.



Romero said she posted a photo on her Webshots that clearly showed her on the field after the Ohio State game.



"I didn’t know they could do that," she said. "This really scares me."



Romero said she has not been officially charged with anything, but she was told she could face up to two years in jail, up to $2,000 in fines and sanctions from the university’s Office of Judicial Affairs.



These tactics, she learned, are perfectly legal.



Groups such as "I rushed the field after the OSU game (and lived!)" are acting as "laundry lists of suspects" for the police to interview, said Communications and Law Professor Clay Calvert, who is a co-director for the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment.



"If it’s accessible to the public, it’s fair game," Calvert said. "People have expectations of privacy in cyberspace that don’t exist."



Posting a declaration on Facebook.com or any other personal page is the equivalent of hanging a sign outside the Willard Building, telecommunications professor Matthew Jackson said. Police have just as much legal right to view that sign as they do a public access Web site, he said.



Ethically, the community of Facebook users is expecting the site will only be frequented by fellow students and not administrators, professors or police officers, Jackson said.



"Is it appropriate for the police to be using this source when students created their profiles for a completely different purpose?" Jackson said.



Josh Gordner (junior-crime, law and justice) said his profile was never meant for the university police’s eyes.



Gordner got a call from police Thursday who said they had "video footage and pictures" of him on the field after the Ohio State game.



The strange thing was that, of all his friends surrounding him on the field, Gordner was the only one who police called, he said.



Gordner was also the only one in a Facebook group whose members claimed they rushed the field.



"It’s bulls—," he said. "There were like 5,000 people on the field; if you are going to get to get one, why not get all of them?"



University police is not the only agency using college-friendly Web sites and video footage as stepping stones in investigations. The State College Police Department has been using video and photographs to identify riot suspects since 1998, when an impromptu police video and video footage turned in by citizens aided in 60 arrests, State College Police Sgt. Mark Argiro said.



"If we have an individual under investigation, then we may use [Facebook.com] as a resource," Argiro said. "I know we have officers here who have successfully identified people in assault cases and in the vandalism of property worth thousands of dollars."



The number of incidents involving Facebook has been rising since its creation in February 2004. A student at Fisher College in Boston was expelled in October for a message in a Facebook group.



The student wrote that an officer "…needs to be eliminated" through a petition or other means. The student was expelled for conspiring to and damaging the reputation of the officer, according to an article in the Boston Globe.



Robert Shibley, program manager for The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) — a group created to defend college students’ First Amendment rights — said FIRE has seen three cases in the past few months that have involved Facebook.com.



"It is growing in popularity among students, and I would definitely expect to see more cases in coming months," he said.



This could lead to consequences for all 52,016 Penn State Facebook members — the most at any school on the network.



Facebook spokesman Chris Hughes said the site was created to give college students a way to share information, not as a forum for authorities to police student profiles.



"We hear fairly often about faculty or staff actually using Facebook.com, most commonly [concerning] alcohol usage," he said. "We hear much more rarely about actual law enforcement."



Perhaps that is because it’s tough to substantiate Facebook information with reality, he added.



"If you’re in a group that says you like apple pie, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in love with apple pie," Hughes added.



Hughes said Facebook.com creators have built sensitive privacy options under the privacy tabs to allow students to make their profile available only to those they choose.



Two people have already been charged with criminal trespass since the Ohio State game, Parham said. One individual assaulted an officer and the other was charged with harassment, he added.



The individuals under investigation face charges of criminal trespass, which state code dictates can be a summary or a misdemeanor offense.



Parham said it would most likely be a summary offense, which carries fines up to $300, and students would be referred to Judicial Affairs. But in certain circumstances, a misdemeanor offense would be applicable.



"We are doing this to let [everyone] know that rushing the field is against the law," Parham said. "It is not acceptable."

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Schools: Pennsylvania State University – University Park