Exposing lawbreakers

March 14, 2007, midnight | By Lingfeng Li | 15 years, 9 months ago

Where only first names appear, names have been changed to protect the identities of the sources.

In the Blair network on Facebook, 22 people have alcohol, smoke or an ambiguous plastic cup in their profile pictures, visible to anyone who searches for them.

In March 2006, a Maryland high school freshman was suspended for online photos, and colleges have reportedly denied admission after reading applicants' online profiles.

With six million new pictures uploaded daily, Facebook staffers addressed photograph etiquette Feb. 13 on the official Facebook blog, advising all users to stop "posting pictures of people doing illegal stuff." For users under 21, the blog suggests it's "probably best not to post a picture of that keg stand from last weekend."

While legal investigators require solid evidence to convict teens suspected of engaging in illegal activities, college admissions officers can act on mere suspicion. The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), an organization that helps students gain admission to top colleges, urges college hopefuls to be wary of what they choose to post online. Although most colleges do not visit Facebook to screen applicants, "discretion is the real key to what to post and what not to post," says David Hawkins, the director of public policy for the NACAC.

NACAC claims some policies make anyone holding what appears to be an alcoholic drink vulnerable. "From an admissions point of view, there doesn't have to be very much proof," Hawkins says.

Even when its contents are obscured, a red plastic cup can be enough to draw suspicion. Every so often, Luke, a senior, lets his friends snap a photo of him holding a red cup and upload it onto Facebook. Once Luke is "tagged" - or labeled in the photo - it is linked to his account for any Facebook user to see.

While Luke says he doesn't worry about the various photos of him holding suspicious-looking beverages, he does check them occasionally to make sure that they are not too incriminating. He doesn't bother to untag himself from the pictures, he explains, because the photos don't offer any concrete evidence of underage drinking. To Luke, they are simply images of him holding a cup.

Luke does not know of anyone who has faced any punishment for evidence of illegal activities posted online, and he doesn't think he'll be the first.

But for sophomore Hannah Simon, it wasn't alcohol but her choice of clothing that drew unwanted attention. A few years ago, Simon posted a picture on her Xanga weblog of her and a friend in their bathing suits. When her parents saw the photo, they worried that posting a revealing photograph online might put her in danger from Internet predators. At the time, Simon says she thought nothing of posting the picture, even though she now acknowledges that it might have been considered risqué. "[It was] totally natural. I didn't think about it at all," she says.

Her parents do not monitor her computer use and have said little about her blog since.

Luke and Simon may have gotten off easily, but according to Shayana Kadidal, a staff attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, there can be severe legal consequences for irresponsible online behavior. Law enforcement officials are free to use pictures found on blogs or social profiles as evidence in criminal investigations as long as the web site is accessible legally, Kadidal says. "There's nothing preventing [a blog or profile] from being evidence in the same way a surveillance camera is," he says.

Because of the possible legal risks of putting suspicious photos online, Erica, a senior, began to take precautions soon after she created her Facebook account last summer. After hearing that some colleges look at applicants' personal sites, she decided to customize her privacy settings so that only her friends and those in the Blair network could access her photos, and she denies friend requests from anyone she doesn't recognize.

Although she still keeps a picture of herself with a table full of martini glasses tagged, Erica and her friends have made an effort to be discreet, keeping any clearly labeled alcohol out of pictures. "People can take it for what it is," she says of the liquids in the picture.

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