Saving Face

    With recent initiatives adopted by law enforcement and university officials, students who freely display personal information on their Facebook profile may want to think twice.

    Jennifer Hsu/Guardian

    This past fall, one student at Fisher College in Boston was expelled for openly announcing plans to defame a campus police officer with allegations of sexual assault. Residence hall officials at UC Santa Barbara have adopted Facebook.com as a tool for disciplining students caught doing illegal activity. Last August, officials at the University of New Mexico blocked student access to Facebook.com with the aim of protecting student privacy, but have recently brought it back after school officials implemented better security measures within the site.

    Just one of Facebook’s many features, self-declared groups like “UCSD Chronic Society,” “Weed and Shrooms” and “Beer Bong Appreciation,” entice students who join them in jest or in all-seriousness.

    But whether or not evidence of illegal activity is apparent from tagged photos, “wall” postings or “groups” that unite students under a collective cause or vice, the looming possibility of being caught has become very real for students, due to officials who claim they have the right to investigate.

    Facebook.com has swept the nation’s college community off its feet, becoming the ninth-most visited Web site on the Internet, according to Nielsen/Net ratings cited in a recent article in the New York Times.

    What began as a small project birthed by a group of Harvard students in 2004 has erupted into an online community of about five million college students.

    “It’s a phenomenon in general,” said Sixth College junior Ryan Underwood, whose eyes lit up with familiarity upon hearing the word “Facebook.”

    Underwood, who said he checks the periwinkle-blue site at least once a day, remarked that he prefers Facebook to other online networking sites like Myspace.com, citing a better design layout.

    Other students have a more tepid attitude toward the “phenomenon” of online networking, despite its wide popularity.

    “I have more important things to take care of and I don’t see anything substantial in it,” said Revelle College junior Rebecca Park, who is a member of Facebook.com but rarely checks it. Park noted that she knows people who check the site as often as five times a day.

    Thurgood Marshall College senior Van Tran is also less involved with the Web site.

    “My friends tell me to join the bandwagon, but I haven’t gotten around to doing it,” Tran said.

    The online directory allows students to post profiles with their contact information; favorite movies, books, and music; and most recently, photo albums of themselves and their friends — albums that sometimes contain photos that draw the attention of college officials interested in scoping out underage drinking, drug use or criminal threats.

    At UCSD, however, screening such sites for illegal student activity is not an efficient method, according to campus police. Corporal Doug O’Dell of crime prevention at the UCSD police department, who was unfamiliar with Facebook.com, said that campus police would not try to “discover” a crime that might not be there.

    “Typically, we here at the police department don’t engage in fishing expeditions. We don’t go out and look for things that are not there,” O’Dell said. “If we did use the site, we would be investigating some kind of crime.”

    However, O’Dell acknowledged that if any alleged illegal activity posted on such sites were reported, the next natural action would be to investigate.

    “If that came to our attention, we would definitely follow-up,” he said. “But just as general practice, no. If somebody was making threats that cause a student fear for their safety, we would certainly go to the Web site to see what was there and use that as a tool for whatever crime that has been committed.”

    The policing of online communities within Facebook.com, Myspace.com and even online journals, or blogs, may not be a common method of discipline, but it has brought to light a controversial issue that brings forth questions of student privacy.

    But maintaining privacy depends on the information that is posted at the user’s discretion. Facebook.com allows students to display all kinds of contact information, from e-mail addresses to cell phone numbers, even the street on which they live.

    “If you think about it, it’s public domain,” O’Dell said. “If anybody can register, they can certainly do that. It is not an invasion of privacy. People don’t realize that anybody can read it.”

    Facebook.com users however, require a school e-mail address (.edu) to register and log-in, which does not limit access to student profiles by faculty members on campus, including professors and university employers.

    Communication professor Robert Horwitz said that privacy violations only apply in situations when one is concerned about protecting certain information, like credit card accounts, social security numbers or home addresses.

    “Privacy really comes to play when you don’t want to put info out,” Horwitz said.

    Thurgood Marshall College senior and on-campus Community Service Officer Cynthia Concha agrees.

    “You shouldn’t be displaying it anyways,” Concha said. “The police are doing their job. What does it matter what method they use?” Concha noted that she had not heard of campus police utilizing Facebook.com as a tool for law enforcement.

    “There’s been no word about using this at all,” she said.

    Still, certain photos may arouse suspicion. If a Facebook photo shows an underage student holding a red plastic cup, does that necessarily mean it contains alcohol? Is the smoke in that bong from tobacco or marijuana? The answers may not be obvious, but to some law enforcement officials, such photos give incentive to investigate. Despite such easy access in finding illegal activity through Facebook, many law enforcers still mainly rely on crime tips.

    “Information passes from point A to point B,” Tran said. “It could happen by word of mouth.”

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