Data is evidence by Heather Bussing on

Data is evidence: Legal Editor Heather Bussing catalogs the online sources where lawyers, employers and other agents are tracking your digital footprints.

Almost everything we do leaves a digital data trail. For lawyers, that means evidence.

Here are some places to find digital evidence depending on what you want to know. Some involve a search online. Others require a subpoena.

If you want to know where someone was and when?

Cell phones all have gps tracking, so you can subpoena a person’s cell phone records and learn where they went and when. In fact, a person’s patterns of travel over time can be distinct enough to identify the person by their travel fingerprint. If someone posts a status update on Facebook or other social media sites from a phone, the update often contains location data too.

Foursquare is a mobile app where people check-in at certain places to meet friends, compete with each other to be the “mayor,” and get discounts at bars, restaurants and stores. When someone checks-in and it posts to social media, you can see where they were. A user can also give friends access to all their check-ins.

Photos-You don’t just get the content of the image, there is digital metadata connected to every photograph that shows the date and time it was taken. Photos taken with mobile devices also contain location information. And often, people will tag the photo with the location on social media. The data available depends on whether or not you get the full digital version or download it after some of the meta-data has been stripped. Different websites handle it different ways.

Surveillance cameras are in many places, and are usually time and date stamped. There are no rules about how long this data is kept and many companies discard it after short periods of time. So if you know the date something happened, send a letter right away to ask them to preserve it.

Toll Devices–Fast-track/Fast-pass transponders show where the person (or at least their car/device) went and when. These devices are used for bridges and toll roads, and are starting to be used for airport parking and other public parking.

GPS, Transponder, and Auto Black Boxes are being built into newer cars that can collect data on where people are, how fast they were driving, the routes they took, and minute by minute data on the trip.

If you want to know who someone was with.

You can match cell phone, four square, social media and photo data between two accounts to find out if two people were at the same place at the same time.

And with 300 million photos being uploaded to Facebook per day, chances are there are photos of them together.

If you want to know more about someone.

Google– if you have a name, start with a google search of the name in quotes. Also do an image search for the same name in quotes to pull up photos that are associated with that name. There is a tremendous amount of information you can learn this way.

Social media accounts. Twitter is public. Facebook is semi-public depending on user settings and how much flack Facebook is getting for messing with user privacy. Linkedin is generally public, with more information available by subscription.

Zoominfo, Pipl, Peoplefinders, Intellius, all have some information that is free with additional information available at nominal charge. The background information often includes who their relatives are, who their neighbors are, past addresses, lawsuits they have been involved in and can include criminal history. All of this information is taken from public records and what is available on the internet.

Google Earth– Once you have an address, you can go back to google maps and zoom in on the address to see the house, cars in the driveway, and sometimes license plates.

Mutual Contacts – See if you have mutual friends or contacts on Linkedin and social media accounts. Then look at your common friend’s accounts for photos or information.

How to Get the Data

Social Media— Twitter is public. Facebook depends on the user’s privacy settings and Facebook changes. Employers can usually access employee use data if the account was used on an employer device, computer or network and often as part of an investigation of employment issues.

Device records— Cell phone records, Fast-track records and surveillance data generally have to be subpoenaed, unless you own the phone/device and the account. This means if you are an employer who provides phones to employees, you have access to the records of everything they do on their phones. If you are an employee, make sure you understand that before you take the phone as a “benefit.” Same with that Fast Track.

Photographs can often be downloaded, but the meta data will differ depending on where it was from and how it was uploaded then downloaded. Ask an expert what you need. If the person emailed a photograph to someone else, you can ask for it from whomever has it. You can also order satellite photos of almost any location and date from providers like Terraserver.

Online information– If it’s online, it’s generally public information. Be sure to keep track of the website you downloaded the information from and take screen shots. Note the date and time.

Further Reading

How Employers Can Still See Employee Social Media Accounts

Employee Privacy – What Can Employers Monitor?

Employee Privacy – Social Media




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