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News

Expert Advice

Sep. 2, 2007

Mining Social Networks for Personal Data

Don't underestimate the type or the volume of information people will post about themselves online—or the help it may be in assessing a client, opponent, or potential hire. By Carole Levitt and Mark Rosch

By Carole Levitt and Mark Rosch
     
      Social networks such as MySpace (www.myspace.com) are one of the most talked-about areas of growth on the Internet. The term social network was coined in the mid-1950s by sociologist J. A. Barnes to describe interactions between people who have similar personal or professional interests. On the Web, it describes interactions between people in the virtual world who share such interests.
      Friendster (www.friendster.com) was one of the first sites to be referred to as a social network. However, later arrivals such as MySpace and Facebook (www.facebook.com) are now more widely recognized. Classmates.com, which offers many of the same functions as the other social-network sites, was launched long before the social-network label was applied to websites.
      To participate in a social-networking site, a person typically creates an online profile to share information about interests, then selects other users to be "friends." Being friends allows greater access to one another's profiles than general users have. At most sites, users can post text, images, sound, and other information to their profiles; some sites allow members to create a blog and chat with other users. Some of this additional content is visible only to friends. Friends also can leave public comments for one another.
      Originally the domain of the 20-and-under crowd, members of all ages now post a surprising amount of personally identifiable and private information about themselves in their profiles. Knowing how to mine the wealth of information that people post?or their friends post about them?can be a boon to online researchers who need background information about a person or help locating someone, such as a missing heir or potential witness.
      Recently, attorneys have found information in social-networking profiles that made a difference in the outcomes of their cases. For example, a prosecutor in Santa Barbara used the information a woman posted on MySpace about her partying lifestyle to seek a prison sentence rather than probation when her drunken driving caused her passenger's death. Another attorney was able to locate a missing witness using MySpace even though the witness did not have a profile; her young daughter did. Judges and law firm recruiters have also used social-networking sites to sift through the profiles of potential hires.
      Facebook claims more than 24 million members, broken down into networks for people attending specific schools, working at particular places, or other categories. When registering on Facebook, you must enter an email address, which allows you to become a member of a particular network and to view profiles within it. If you lack a network email address?such as those that universities, employers, and Internet service providers supply?then you are restricted to a geographic network, such as Los Angeles.
      Regardless of what network you belong to, as a Facebook member you can search the site to learn whether your subjects have created profiles and to identify the networks to which they belong. If you are not part of a subject's network, you will be able to view only his or her photos and a list of the person's friends. If you need to view a full profile of someone outside your network, try sending an interoffice email to all the members of your law firm asking if any of them belong to the subject's network. You could then get access through that account.
      Sometimes the information in messages from your subject's friends can be more useful than what's in his or her profile. For example, one friend's message about a particular person revealed that she was a student at a certain university?something she had not included in her profile.
      Unlike Facebook, MySpace has no requirement that you create an account or belong to a particular network to view the public profiles included there. The majority of MySpace's 180 million profiles are public; all profiles of members under the age of 16 are set to private.
      Unfortunately, the search functions in MySpace leave a lot to be desired. Some test searches failed to locate certain individuals' profiles even though they had created them using their actual names. To counter this problem, enter your search words or phrases into Google's Advanced Search page?where you can create more sophisticated searches by combining keyword, phrase, and boolean searching?and then limit the results to the "myspace.com" domain by selecting the box labeled "Domain?Only return results from the site or domain."
     
      Carole Levitt and Mark Rosch are principals of Internet for Lawyers (www.netforlawyers.com) and coauthors of The Lawyer's Guide to Fact Finding on the Internet (American Bar Association, Law Practice Management Section) and The Cybersleuth's Guide to the Internet (IFL Press).
     
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Megan Kinneyn

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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