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Real risks of discussing illegal/illicit matters on social media
March 5, 2014 7:41 AM   Subscribe

What's so wrong with posting and discussing illicit or illegal matters on social media? It seems like a bad idea in a vague sense, sure, and I'm aware of the NSA. But if one is not currently under investigation for anything, what's the worst that could realistically happen to a person and/or their interlocutors?

There's a situation I want to bring up with an acquaintance on Facebook, and it's very important that I come off as casual/easy-breezy, so it's not an option to meet in person or give a phone call. What risks do I run in sending a Facebook message or Gchat that might mention illegal activities?

And, for what it's worth, the illegal activities have nothing to do with guns, porn, or violence or abuse of any kind.
posted by magdalemon to Computers & Internet (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Sometimes, the objection is from the social media site itself: they don't want to appear to, in any way shape or form, to be endorsing illegal (or even just socially objectionable) activity. Other times, it's the simple 'don't write down anything incriminating' standard: don't put anything in writing anywhere that could ever come back and bite you in the ass...... and putting something on a social media site is permanent.
posted by easily confused at 7:46 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


What risks do I run in sending a Facebook message or Gchat that might mention illegal activities?

I don't know about whether or not those types of communications are monitored for keywords or anything like that, so won't/can't comment on that.

But I will say: you're putting something about your (?) illegal activities in writing, so if some time down the line the recipient's attitude toward you changes for the worse, they could turn that information over to the local authorities in an attempt to screw you over. Or, the information could hurt you in the future in some other way.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 7:47 AM on March 5 [6 favorites]


The most basic risk is that the person you are communicating with will republish your chats to someone you don't want to see them. Your boss, your mom, your daughter, etc. My high school girlfriend kept emailing me about wanting to have an affair, badmouthing her husband, etc. It was weird and stalkery. She would not leave me alone, until I told her I would just send all her emails and messages to her husband, and I have not heard from her since.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 7:48 AM on March 5 [3 favorites]


Here in Canada, if you read actual cases, Facebook is really, really frequently used against people. Not just public comments/pictures but also what people assumed would be private communication.

How illegal is illegal though? There is a spectrum between "blazin' up, yo!" and "at ten pm on Friday we will use our guns to heist a brinks truck at the intersection of King and Queen St".
posted by saucysault at 7:48 AM on March 5 [6 favorites]


In criminal law, a conspiracy is an agreement between two or more persons to commit a crime at some time in the future.
posted by three blind mice at 7:49 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


I was just reading this case this morning; not exactly the same but something to think about?
posted by mlle valentine at 7:51 AM on March 5


To clarify: I'm trying to find a way to ask the acquaintance what substance a 3rd party (my sister) was abusing over the weekend. I'm concerned and don't want to make a Big Deal about it, but I need to know if it was a one-time thing or part of a pattern. Sister is avoidant/defensive so I can't ask her directly, but I trust the acquaintance.
posted by magdalemon at 7:54 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


What risks do I run in sending a Facebook message or Gchat that might mention illegal activities?

Generally it's not a great idea to put anything in writing that could be used against you later by the recipient.

But, to answer your question: Long story short, you're safe as long as the recipient doesn't report you (and even then, they would need to report you for appearing to commit an actual crime).

If you're not otherwise on the government's radar, then sure, I suspect they have access to your private communications but it's not like there's a human being reading Facebook messages or gchats from people who aren't the subjects of any current investigation. The NSA doesn't give a shit about small-time drug deals or what have you - they're more concerned with catching the next 9/11 or spotting the next Tsarnaev.

To clarify: I'm trying to find a way to ask the acquaintance what substance a 3rd party (my sister) was abusing over the weekend. I'm concerned and don't want to make a Big Deal about it, but I need to know if it was a one-time thing or part of a pattern. Sister is avoidant/defensive so I can't ask her directly, but I trust the acquaintance.


Oh. Yeah, you're perfectly safe. I thought you were asking about scoring drugs. Just conversationally discussing drugs? Not any kind of a thing.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 7:58 AM on March 5 [7 favorites]


Things posted on the internet NEVER go away.
Your grandchildren will be able to find those posts. As will every future employer.

As a young adult, you might not care so much about the future right now,
but trust me, you will NOT want to explain these posts in 50years to your teenage granddaughter.
posted by Flood at 8:12 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


To clarify: I'm trying to find a way to ask the acquaintance what substance a 3rd party (my sister) was abusing over the weekend. I'm concerned and don't want to make a Big Deal about it, but I need to know if it was a one-time thing or part of a pattern. Sister is avoidant/defensive so I can't ask her directly, but I trust the acquaintance.

If it were me:

1. Find out if they included an email (more likely) or phone number (less likely) in their Facebook profile, and use one of those if present. Since you don't want to call, I think a text would be just as easy/breezy as a message. (I mention this because I often forgot about this feature when wanting to contact people I know on FB)

2. Message them for their cell number and shoot them a text. (If I trust someone enough to trust their opinion, I don't think I'd have a problem asking them for their cell phone number.)


3. Throw (the minimal) caution to the wind and send a message over FB chat. It's a close family member and may be worth the minimal risk, especially if its a relatively "popular" substance which likely will have a ton of hits from teens and the like who aren't so cognizant of keeping illicit substances out of FB and GChat.
posted by Debaser626 at 8:22 AM on March 5 [2 favorites]


if one is not currently under investigation for anything, what's the worst that could realistically happen to a person

The least paranoid answer is: One could someday become under investigation for something, and this disclosure could get dredged up as part of that investigation.

The most paranoid answer is: this disclosure will get dredged up by mass surveillance, and will lead to an investigation when they get around to taking the obvious next step of doing mass prosecutions based on the mass surveillance.

Recent events tend to support the most paranoid answer, especially in the US and UK.

(In your specific case, this carries no risk for you and your acquaintance, but some risk for your sister.)
posted by ook at 8:29 AM on March 5


Unless there is some other reason why you're under investigation/in trouble, or a person is searching *really hard* for leverage over you, I would estimate a slim-to-none chance that this would be an issue. We live in a panopticon and all, but police departments still aren't made of time and money, and a "crime" like someone mentioning a third party's maybe drug use over facebook is not going to launch any investigations.

As an illustration: an old friend of mine was a huge pothead in high school, college, and beyond. He and his buddies used to stand on the back porch of his one friend's parents' house and smoke up on a daily/weekly basis. A few years ago, that friend's dad got arrested, convicted and sentenced for selling weapons secrets to another country, and is still in prison for spying. It turned out that, all those years that my old friend and his buddies were standing outside blazing up, the FBI had had the house under surveillance and had watched it all. But none of those guys got in trouble for it. Because frankly, the FBI had bigger fish to fry.
posted by rue72 at 8:47 AM on March 5 [4 favorites]


what substance a 3rd party (my sister) was abusing

If you discuss this on Facebook, the information that your sister uses drugs will forever be out there on the internet. This will not be helpful to her recovery or future prospects.

You have no way to safeguard the information that other people have. This isn't about your drug use so you are not at risk. What about your sister?

I know your question wasn't directly about helping her but I'd like to add I work in A&D. This kind of end run tactic probably won't improve matters and, if/when she finds out that, will only alienate her more. If you already know this, please disregard.
posted by Beti at 9:17 AM on March 5 [5 favorites]


This is a risk tolerance issue. And in this specific question you are considering not just tolerance for your own risk but possibly lumping your sister into this because what you are considering asking is something that might make her seem like someone who has done something illegal and/or has a drug problem (depending on how the acquaintance you contact writes back). I have a pretty high risk tolerance for myself (I talk publicly about drug use, I use my real name on social media sites) but I have a sister who has a job that she likes that comes with a security clearance and I would not, personally, implicate her by talking about her on social media in a way I thought might be problematic for her, even a little. Other situations that could go this way would be if your sister has kids and/or a contentious custody issue, if she was on probation.

That said, the chances that anyone not under an active criminal investigation would have their stuff messed wit to this degree is slim. And, despite the fact that the NSA or whoever may have access to this information, the chances that it will specifically come back to bite you or your sister on the ass is slimmer still. So if it were me, I'd ask and I'd ask the person I was talking with to be discreet. But, realistically speaking, you can't limit your risk of exposure to zero if you use social media. That said this is probably also true if you talk about this sort of thing in the grocery store. So you'll have to consider your own risk tolerance for this and the possible downsides of exposure and your own moral compass and act accordingly.
posted by jessamyn at 9:44 AM on March 5 [3 favorites]


There was a story about this on NPR last week: As Police Monitor Social Media, Legal Lines Become Blurred
posted by ATX Peanut at 9:56 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


We live in a panopticon and all

No, we actually don't. There's been a lot of propaganda lately that's left a lot of people believing we do, and I am wondering on whose behalf that propaganda was generated, but I digress.

In the UK, if you are saying, in writing, that a third party is doing something illegal when they weren't, that could legally count as libel, and it could be actionable if the third party found out about it (and wanted to take legal action).

I don't think a lot of people understand how publicly a lot of criminals tweet their crimes. Demonstrably, many people broadcast their confessions to the universe through social media, and so far many of them seem to get away with it. That doesn't mean these individuals' indiscreetness won't one day bite them in the butt, nor that the situation won't change in the aggregate.

Basically if you get investigated, your online activities can get investigated too. Liysa Northon's internet search history was investigated along with the rest (claiming to be researching a screenplay, on a topic which became relevant to the prosecution).

I agree with those who say your biggest immediate risk is disclosure of "private" communications between individuals, though.

Your next biggest risk is that comments about illegal activities will be searchable in the future by people you wish couldn't see them. This includes changes to privacy settings that uncover things you thought were hidden.
posted by tel3path at 10:24 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


message them for a phone # and call about it. No written words for drugs.
posted by WeekendJen at 10:47 AM on March 5 [4 favorites]


Seconding WeekendJen.

And also, at the risk of derailing the thread... would you be able to talk to someone at your local drug addiction clinic about this rather than your acquaintance?
posted by Tsukushi at 10:57 AM on March 5


I suggest you simply drop the matter. If it was a one time thing, your prying is creating unnecessary risk for a problem that does not exist. If it is a pattern and sis is a drug addict, quietly asking around really accomplishes nothing. Since sis is avoidant, it sounds like you do not really have the strength of relationship to butt in here (unless we are talking full on whole family "intervention"). And since you do not currently know if it is a pattern, seriously, butt out and assume it was a one time thing because it sounds like, no, an intervention is not in the works.

I say this as someone who has had relatives who were addicts/alcoholics. Fixing something like that takes a lot more than just a tip off from a mutual acquaintance. I only wanted to know enough to protect myself (because, for example, I am allergic to marijuana, so exposure to residue is a health issue for me personally). If you only have suspicions, the less you know, the better off you are ("plausible deniability"). Knowing too much and doing nothing about it can potentially create other problems. A written record that you knew and did nothing could potentially be used as grounds for charges of aiding and abetting or whatever. This very public mefi post so far only has suspicions which could be baseless. Getting an answer in writing from the acquaintance would be different in my mind.

(FWIW: Looking for evidence of illegal activity in order to prompt investigation by the fraud department was part of my corporate job. There is a very big difference between "looks suspicious" and "yeah, we know this person knew blah at yadda time...etc" One leads to getting looked over. The other can lead to charges.)

If you are concerned about sis, work on improving your relationship to sis. This asking around behind her back suggests you are coming from a place of assumption of guilt, which might be part of what is wrong with the relationship. If you develop a basis for trust, then it might be useful to say "hey, sis, what were you doing? just youthful experimenting or is there more going on here?" Without that trust, anything you say is almost certainly going to come across as a personal attack and will be reason to lie, avoid, etc.
posted by Michele in California at 2:31 PM on March 5 [2 favorites]


There's a situation I want to bring up with an acquaintance on Facebook

If you do it, do it by email.

I'm aware of the NSA...

Forget the NSA. It takes no spycraft for your local police to come across remarks you make in public on Facebook, remarks they may construe as a confession.

What risks do I run in sending a Facebook message or Gchat that might mention illegal activities?

Via Facebook? You could be charged with a crime. It happens frequently here in Vancouver.

If you must do this by Facebook, say nothing that could link you to a specific person, place or time.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 6:30 PM on March 5 [1 favorite]


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