Social Media Threatens Witness Protection Programs

Social media sites like Facebook and Instagram, which use facial recognition technology and automatic tagging of photos, threaten to undermine witness protection programs by revealing the true identity of protected individuals, according to a new report from a former Australia federal law enforcement official.

Phil Kowalick, who directed the Australian Federal Police’s National Witness Protection Program for ten years, stated: “Their identity in a new name cannot be protected from Facebook, Instagram and other social networking mediums. If the participant had a presence in the old name, their new name and subsequently their location could be discovered through a chance photograph being posted online and both instances of the person's photograph being matched up.”

Simply staying off social media isn’t a realistic option because of its ubiquity: people may find it even more difficult to rebuild their lives under assumed identities without these commonly used social tools, and absence from social media sites may be suspicious in itself. Even if the individual doesn’t have a social profile, a friend or family member who uses social media may inadvertently post a photo that provides clues to their identity and location.



Kowalick also noted that legislative remedies won’t necessarily be effective because so many social networks are based outside the country, warning, “this is a new threat to the safety and security of participants that defies a legislated solution because of the unregulated and global nature of the Internet.” That means law enforcement officials administering witness protection programs may have a hard time getting social sites to delete old profiles and photos in order to prevent unwanted identification.

Kowalick is proposing a number of measures to Australia’s attorneys general with the goal of limiting this threat, but isn’t at liberty to discuss them, according to The Age, which first reported the news.

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