June 19--As social media and mobile technology have evolved, personal surveillance has changed along with it, making it easier, and cheaper, to spy on others without breaking the law.
It has become more common for private investigators and lawyers to collect evidence of transgressions like infidelity and false workers' compensation claims from websites like Facebook and Twitter.
"People are putting things out there for everyone to see and it's coming into the courtroom," said Kristen Doleva-Lecher, a divorce lawyer at Wolf, Baldwin & Associates in Reading whose clients often come to her with incriminating evidence from Facebook.
For instance, a man may notice that his wife frequently comments on a Facebook page that's unfamiliar to him.
If he hires a private investigator, the investigator might spend a week or two monitoring the wife's Facebook activity to pick up on patterns that suggest infidelity.
Or an employer might suspect that someone collecting workers' compensation is actually able bodied and can check to see whether the person has recently posted Facebook pictures of him or herself playing sports or being active on vacation.
"Most everyone is on Facebook," said Jeff Reichart, a former Reading police investigator who now runs a private investigative agency, Reichart & Associates. "Social networks are starting to give us a whole new look at investigations."
Reichart said the practice of using social media to gather evidence is known as "open source intelligence" and has become an increasingly useful tool for investigations.
Matt Hovey, a family lawyer at Prince Law Offices in Reading, said he has had many cases in which social media have shown that people collecting support from an ex-spouse weren't entitled to it because they were living with a financially stable person.
And Reichart sometimes collects information for child custody cases, providing lawyers with tweets and Facebook updates that could indicate poor child care.
"What we're trying to do is portray an image in court," said Hovey, who has seen social media come to the forefront of family law over the past few years.
Text messages are making it easier to spy, too. Those on the same mobile device family plan as their counterparts can legally obtain records of all text messages sent.
Reichart said his agents can do phone forensics, which involves examining sent and received photos and texts, if a waiver is signed by the plan holder. That tactic is often used to uncover infidelity.
Another high-tech tool involves GPS vehicle trackers. They can be legally placed on cars by a spouse as long as he or she is a co-owner of the car, Reichart said.
Such tracking devices can be bought for as little as $150 online. Reichart plans to sell them to clients through his agency within the next few months.
Other forms of spying, though, can get you into trouble with the law. Recording private phone calls or taking video of someone in a place of expected privacy are illegal in Pennsylvania.
But state lawmakers have recently proposed amendments to the Wiretap Act, which would make criminal surveillance easier for prosecutors, detectives, and police.
If passed, detectives will be given the power to read private text messages and intercept cellphone conversations of crime suspects, and track criminals through locations received by cellphone companies. When it comes to police using social networks to keep tabs on crime, Reichart thinks they're behind the times.
"I'm more able now to figure out things about people on these social networking sites then when I was at the police department," he said. "They haven't taken advantage of the full spectrum of social networking out there."
Contact Laura Newberry: 610-371-5038 or [email protected].
Copyright 2012 - Reading Eagle, Pa.