How Prisoners Harass Their Victims Using Facebook

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Dan Kitwood / Getty

Most of Facebook's 400 million members use the social-networking site to reconnect with long-lost pals and keep in touch with friends and family. But dozens of prisoners in Britain have found a more sinister and predatory use for Facebook: after being locked up for offenses such as murder and assault, inmates are taunting and terrorizing their victims through status updates and group wall posts.

Barry Mizen, whose 16-year-old son Jimmy was murdered in 2008, says his family endured months of personal attacks on a Facebook page that was created after Jimmy's killer, Jake Fahri, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison last March. "The words going back and forth were getting really nasty — it was just so undignified," says Mizen, who lives in southeast England. "My children were taking it very personally." Around the same time, taunting messages also started to come from Fahri's Twitter account, including one that said, "Jimmy Mizen was a pathetic loser." "There's got to be more control over this," Barry Mizen says. "Facebook and Twitter have to take responsibility for what goes on their sites."

British prisons ban inmates from accessing the Internet except for educational purposes, and then only under staff supervision. But prisoners are still finding ways to update their Facebook pages from behind bars, sometimes using smart phones they've smuggled into jail. More than 3,800 illicit cell phones were seized in British prisons in 2008, prompting authorities to start using mobile-phone signal blockers and body-orifice security scanners in some jails. Nevertheless, officials admit there's not much they can do to stop prisoners from having friends or family update their Facebook pages for them.

Facebook officials in the U.S. and Europe say they don't know whether this harassment problem extends beyond Britain, the only place where such cases have been made public. "We believe this is really a case of first impression," says Tim Sparapani, Facebook's director of public policy in Washington. "We've searched far and wide within the company and, among the collective memories of staff, we think this has no precedent."

In an effort to solve the problem, British Justice Secretary Jack Straw recently called on Facebook to shut down the profile pages of more than 30 prisoners who were known to have used the site to target their victims. "The abuse of social-networking sites by prisoners is offensive to public morality and decency," he said. "Updating their profiles within prison is an offense under prison rules, and using them to abuse victims is deplorable." Facebook obliged with the request to remove the pages on Feb. 11, and company officials met with representatives from the Justice Ministry and victims' advocates this week to formulate more concrete guidelines for reporting abuse. Straw said officials would discuss extending the Facebook restrictions to released prisoners as well.

The sheer number of people using social-networking sites makes it difficult to monitor misuse, both for law-enforcement officials and site administrators. Sparapani estimates that Facebook users spend 18 billion minutes on the site each day. "We have 400 million active users and a tiny, tiny staff. We need to find novel ways to handle that kind of crushing amount of activity. It's the burden of being so immensely popular," he says. Richard Allan, the Dublin-based director of policy for Facebook Europe, says an open dialogue between social-networking sites and police is key to stopping abuse. "The Ministry of Justice brought to our attention people who have been abusing the site," he says. "We want to have a regular channel of communication so we can deal with these cases."

But for some, punishing abusers after they torment victims isn't enough. Gary Trowsdale, founder of a group called Families Utd, a British advocacy group for relatives of young murder victims, says people should automatically lose their cyberliberties in addition to their civil liberties if they're found guilty of a crime. Although Facebook bans sex offenders from using the site, it has no specific policy for people convicted of other crimes. "Until they serve their time, they should lose the ability to have their profile on any of these social-networking sites," Trowsdale says. "Their information should be given to Facebook and Twitter by the relevant justice authorities, and on that basis [the sites] should then self-police."

For the time being, Facebook will continue to rely on its system of user-based abuse reporting, although Sparapani says the company is fully prepared to cooperate with law-enforcement officials when specific harassment cases come up. "We let users police the site, then we take action based on their reports and we review the reports," he says. "We triage based on the seriousness of the incident."

That is little consolation to Mizen, who is still waiting for Facebook to take down the page he reported as offensive months ago. Allan wouldn't comment specifically on Mizen's case but said that in general, all complaints are reviewed within 36 hours. Not in his case, Mizen says. "You don't get any acknowledgement," he says. "Nothing happens."