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When the cops subpoena your Facebook information ...

stored communications act boston

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#1 Hum

Hum

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Posted 13 April 2012 - 13:39

This week's Boston Phoenix cover story -- Hunting the Craigslist Killer: An Untold Detective Story from the Digital Frontier -- would not have been possible without access to a huge trove of case files released by the Boston Police Department. Many of those documents have never been made public -- until now. As a kind of online appendix to the article, we're publishing over a dozen documents from the file, ranging from transcripts of interviews to the subpoenas that investigators obtained from the tech companies that helped them track the killer's digital fingerprints. We've also published the crime scene photos and uploaded recordings made by investigators as they interviewed the killer, Philip Markoff, and others involved in the case.

One of the most fascinating documents we came across was the BPD's subpoena of Philip Markoff's Facebook information. It's interesting for a number of reasons -- for one thing, Facebook has been pretty tight-lipped about the subpoena process, even refusing to acknowledge how many subpoenas they've served. Social-networking data is a contested part of a complicated legal ecosystem -- in some cases, courts have found that such data is protected by the Stored Communications Act.

In fact, we'd never seen an executed Facebook subpoena before -- but here we have one, including the forms that Boston Police filed to obtain the information, and the printed (on paper!) response that Facebook sent back, which includes text printouts of Markoff's wall posts, photos he uploaded as well as photos he was tagged in, a comprehensive list of friends with their Facebook IDs (which we've redacted), and a long table of login and IP data.

This document was publicly released by Boston Police as part of the case file. In other case documents, the police have clearly redacted sensitive information. And while the police were evidently comfortable releasing Markoff's unredacted Facebook subpoena, we weren't. Markoff may be dead, but the very-much-alive friends in his friend list were not subpoenaed, and yet their full names and Facebook ID's were part of the document. So we took the additional step of redacting as much identifying information as we could -- knowing that any redaction we performed would be imperfect, but believing that there's a strong argument for distributing this, not only for its value in illustrating the Markoff case, but as a rare window into the shadowy process by which Facebook deals with law enforcement.

source & documents slideshow