Facebook is, undoubtedly, one of the more useful inventions of the past decade. The site allows users to stay in touch with family, friends, and acquaintances in ways that have never been possible before. Facebook lets us reconnect with people we have lost touch with, including former co-workers and schoolmates. Used honestly and judiciously, Facebook can really add value to an individual’s life. And it’s completely free!
However, for some, Facebook does more than just keep friends informed about what’s on the menu for dinner tonight. A recent survey of U.S. divorce lawyers shows that interaction on Facebook is an underlying cause of the break up of the marriage in 20 percent of American divorce cases. Four out of five of those same lawyers claim that they have noticed an increase in the amount of evidence from social networking sites, including Facebook, Myspace or Twitter, being offered into evidence in divorce proceedings. The vast majority of the evidence comes from Facebook.
While Facebook itself is obviously not capable of breaking up a marriage, problems typically occur when spouses reconnect with former schoolmates or past love interests. What may start as an innocent exchange of life updates and family snapshots can quickly turn into an emotional affair, with the offending spouse betraying the trust of his or her mate. Typical indiscretions include spending an inappropriate amount of time chatting with the friend, engaging in inappropriate or sexually charged conversations, or revealing embarrassing or intimate details about the marital relationship. In the worst cases, the offending spouse may end up engaging in a physical relationship with the Facebook friend. Sadly, many spouses find out about the Facebook cheating when the offender forgets to logout of the program or when the “friend” posts inappropriate content or photos on the spouse’s wall for all to see.
Since many states still impose financial penalties on the spouse most responsible for the martial break-up (as opposed to “no-fault” states), these Facebook flings can be costly. The lawyers surveyed, all members of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML), are so worried about social networking misdeeds that they have begun investigating prospective clients’ Facebook pages before agreeing to accept a divorce case.
In addition to making marital infidelity easier and more public, Facebook also plays an increasingly important role in evidence production in other types of legal cases. Parents who are battling for custody of a child can troll Facebook for evidence of drug or alcohol use or other dangerous behavior that may cause a judge to determine that one parent is less qualified to care for the child. There have also been stories of prosecutors using social networking evidence in criminal cases, as well as government agencies reviewing the sites during immigration proceedings.
While social networking users who do not take advantage of the various privacy tools are obvious targets of legal evidence gatherers, others may be surprised at just how much information is available to third parties. First of all, the content of a user’s social networking account is not immune to a judicial subpoena; Facebook could, at least theoretically, be ordered to turn over the contents of an account if there is enough evidence that the content is relevant to the proceeding. However, adversaries do not have to go that far to get their hands on useful information if your “friends” are not vigilant about who can read their walls or view their photos. Just because a user’s own account is locked down does not mean that he cannot be tagged in other people’s photos or that comments he makes on other walls will not be viewable by the general public.