Facebook helps crack case

Facebook acted as an investigative tool when a resident downloaded child pornography on campus
Sunday, October 22, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:54 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Before an MU student suspected of downloading child pornography became the subject of an MU Police investigation in August, he was the subject of an online community investigation that lasted a day and a half and was conducted over a public message board.

Facebook played a role in what some Cramer Hall residents did that night to expose the student’s online activities.

It was Monday, Aug. 28, and a screen shot of an iTunes library containing child pornography file names mysteriously appeared on the door of a room in Cramer Hall. One of the people who lived in that room had downloaded the files, according to information provided to the Missourian on the night of the incident.

MU Police visited the dorm the next day, and the student has since left campus, confirmed Frankie Minor, director of Residential Life at MU.

Rob Deleeuw, 18, a fellow resident of Cramer Hall, told the Missourian that night that he found the suspect’s iTunes on the Residential Life Network to which all the computers connected to MU campus Internet are attached. The files were easily viewed through a program that allows users to “stream,” or listen, to music from other users’ iTunes libraries.

Soon, a picture of the student’s iTunes library appeared on a message board and an informal investigation began, starting with posts containing links to the student’s Facebook and MySpace profiles.

After that, posts began to appear on the message board detailing everything from the student’s involvement in children’s organizations to his parents’ home address. The investigation ended with a call to police.

MU Police Capt. Brian Weimer said his agency was working with others to investigate the crime, but no arrests had been made. He would not say which agencies were involved.

Promoting child pornography, or possessing it with the intention of promoting or distributing it, is a felony in Missouri. If the child depicted in the material is under 14, the person possessing the pornography faces a minimum of five, and a maximum of 15, years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000. If the child depicted is between the ages of 14 and 18, jail time ranges from one year in county jail to seven years in prison.

Christian Basi, a spokesman for MU, said the university follows guidelines outlined in the M-Book when investigating all offenses, and that consequences can range from verbal reprimand to expulsion from the university depending on the severity of the offense. The M-Book is a set of rules and regulations for MU faculty and students.

Though the investigation belongs to the authorities right now, it began as something like a citizen’s arrest in which the network community tracked down and expelled a member of the community that was breaking the rules. Gustavo Mesch, a sociologist who studies online communities, said this kind of community policing is common in these arenas, just as it is in real-world communities.

“Online communities are not creating a totally independent world,” Mesch said. “Individuals ... are bringing with them their offline values and norms of behavior.”

What this kind of online community policing implies, Mesch said, is that the online world is not more dangerous than real life and is sometimes less dangerous.

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