Would you like the police to read all your private social media posts and then read them out into the public record in the courtroom? Well, they can. When you click “private” on the social media account of your choosing, you should know that it may not be legally private.
The police and courts are perfectly well informed on how to get into your social media accounts and read them. It seems that we as Americans have a right to privacy, and to some extent we do. But this right is much more limited than we think, and the government is perfectly able to get into your life and business if they want to do so. This post will discuss three legal ways that the government can read your private postings.
First, most social media outlets have a special department for responding to subpoenas. A subpoena may be issued in a civil case for anything that is likely to lead to relevant information. Think about that. The standard does not require that the information sought is even relevant itself, but that it might lead to something that is relevant. Many people have found out the hard way that their ill-advised party pictures were relevant to a friend’s divorce case. Often, evidence admitted in a court case will become part of the public record permanently, there in the file for anyone to see. There are also other types of subpoenas that may examine your account without your permission. If your account is connected to someone being investigated, you run the risk that your social media company will turn it over to courts and investigators.
Second, if you have not shown an “expectation in privacy” in your posts or communications, then the government can look at them. Did you send your picture or post to anyone else? If so, you may have forfeited your right to privacy in that post. In the physical world, nobody can maintain an expectation in privacy for discarded items. That is why investigators go through a suspect’s trash looking for documents and other evidence. Although this area of the law changes quickly as the law struggles to keep up with new forms of communication, there is a general rule that anyone who puts a communication out into the world cannot declare it private later.
Third, you may not have “standing” to object to your posts or pictures being examined. Standing is like ownership. It means that you must have an interest in an area to object to it being searched. For example, one person cannot object to the search of another person’s car. The owner or driver of the car has the right to object, but that right does not belong to anyone else. If someone posts your message on their site, or prints out your post and leaves it in a public place, you probably do not have standing to object to it being read.
In conclusion, these three concepts illustrate that the right to privacy is not absolute. It is fragile and easily broken. There are many more exceptions to your expectation of privacy, which is why It is important to remember that the world, especially the digital world, is much more visible than we expect it to be.