According to a recent opinion passed down by district court judge William Martini in New Jersey, it is 100 percent legal for a police officer to create a fake Instagram account, friend you, and use evidence found in your Instagram feed against you, should you get yourself into the kind of mess that requires such an investigation. No search warrant necessary.
ArsTechnica reports that the decision came down when Daniel Gatson, the leader of a jewelry theft ring that was busted by the FBI in 2013, buddied up with new Instagram friends, who were actually undercover cops trying to secure evidence against him.
Gatson posted some of his loot on Instagram, presumably thinking that his privacy settings (which require friend requests before anyone can see his feed) would keep him safe. The police simply created a fake account and asked to be Gatson’s friend. The judge ruled that, because Gatson had willingly accepted the police friend request, the evidence found on the Instagram account was sturdy enough to get a search warrant for Gatson’s home.
The Verge makes a good point: If Instagram was a “real-name” social media network (like Facebook), then the police accounts would at least have to use real names, rather than sneaking in as some random, thief-loving Instagram user.
This is just one in a long string of cases in which officials are trying to figure out how social media accounts can and will factor into various investigations and criminal proceedings in court. However, the lesson itself is something we’ve been struggling with since the birth of the internet itself.
What you share online is never really private, no matter what your account settings say. Even Tinder isn’t safe.