When Palmer Township police scanned online party photos for clues in an accident that killed two teens, they were resorting to an increasingly common tactic: using the public forums of the World Wide Web as investigative tools, as incriminating in some cases as a strand of virtual DNA.
Amanda Schultz and Michael Cummings, students at Easton Area High School, died a week ago when their car, driven by 18-year-old Kyle Kehler, crashed into a tree. Kehler survived the wreck and was discharged from the hospital Wednesday. He was charged Friday with vehicular homicide, drunken driving and related offenses.
Police suspected alcohol was a factor in the crash. And, according to court records, photographs posted to Webshots.com an online site set up to share pictures helped investigators place the victims of the crash at a party where beer and rum were served. A Palmer police officer's daughter tipped her father off to the photos just hours after the accident.
The case highlights some unexpected advantages and risks of the online world. The advantages lie with authorities, who are suddenly able to leaf through the personal photo albums and diaries of suspects and witnesses without needing search warrants to do so. The risks are for Web users who expose themselves to prosecution or exploitation by opening their private lives to a worldwide audience.
News archives offer dozens of recent accounts of authorities using the Web to crack cases. Earlier this month, a California middle school student became the target of a hate crime investigation after he allegedly posted threats against a classmate on My-Space.com, a two-year-old online community of personal profiles used by more than 60 million people.
In Colorado, a 16-year-old boy who posted MySpace photos of himself holding guns was charged with illegal weapons possession. Last fall, police at Penn State used another site, Facebook, to identify and punish students who rushed the field to celebrate after a football victory against Ohio State University.
MySpace and another site, Xanga, gave investigators additional information on David Ludwig and Kara Borden, teenagers from Lititz, Lancaster County, who had pages on both sites. Ludwig, who is charged with killing Borden's parents, liked ''soft air gun wars,'' according to his Xanga postings.
David Howells, Allentown's assistant police chief, said Web profile sites are another weapon in the investigative arsenal. ''It's something law enforcement can do, but as with anything, it's just a piece of an investigation,'' he said. ''With any investigation, you try to gather as many facts as possible and collect as many clues as you can, wherever they may be.''
The notion of police browsing online postings for crime clues might provoke queasiness for privacy minded Web users, but experts say there are no constitutional issues in play. MySpace and similar sites were created as public gathering spaces. So the onus of privacy falls on users.
''You absolutely have the right to post, but it's the ramifications of those postings that's the problem,'' said Rebecca Jeschke of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group for online privacy and free speech. ''It is as good as a billboard on the side of the road
If you are going to be so unwise as to do something illegal, it compounds the unwiseness to post pictures of it online.''
A spokesman for MySpace which includes a section of online safety tips concurred.
''I think it's important from MySpace's perspective that people understand what they put on a MySpace page as part of their personal self-expression is available for others to see,'' Matt Grossman said. ''It's important people feel able to express themselves on their page, but at the same time they need to be cognizant the same way that this is a public forum.''
MySpace assists police investigations and does so ''all the time,'' Grossman added. ''At the end of the day, I don't think it's that much different than law enforcement looking at someone's locker or bedroom to see if there's information they can glean.''
Tough to monitor
If MySpace and similar sites have helped authorities, they have also become cause for concern. MySpace, in particular, has come under increased scrutiny since federal authorities accused two men of sexually assaulting underage girls they met through the site.
Critics note it is easy to thwart the age requirements meant to limit membership to older teens and adults. My-Space posters are supposed to be 14 or older, but registering simply requires the selection of a birth date from a pulldown menu.
Age verification is problematic across the Web. On their shared MySpace page, for example, Schultz and her friend Ilyse Filowitz claimed membership in an online forum for vodka drinkers. The forum says membership is restricted to people of drinking age, but, the moderator writes, ''I just haven't had the time yet to go through and delete the minors.''
While nudity is banned on MySpace, some pages serve up provocative photos and surprising amounts of personal information. A reporter for a Montana newspaper, the Lake County Leader, wrote of obtaining cell phone numbers for 14 high school girls all of them under 18 by browsing the site.
Bridget McGuire of Easton, whose eighth-grade stepdaughter maintains a My-Space page, calls such sites ''phone books for sexual predators.''
While she tries to be aware of what her daughter is doing online, ''The problem is she's better on the computer than any of us could be,'' McGuire said. ''My daughter's computer-savvy. We make her go off the computer at 11 p.m. It's hard to monitor. She says, 'I don't talk to anyone I don't know,' but I don't know.''
Be careful what you post
Howells said authorities ''caution everybody to be careful with what they put out there. These sites are often monitored by bad people, people who may be looking to do anything from physically assaulting you to scamming you to stealing your identity.''
Tatamy resident Deanne Werkheiser's niece and most of her friends have MySpace pages. The pages, rife with photos and personal stories, make Werkheiser nervous.
''It scares me to death. She puts anything and everything up there,'' she said.
Werkheiser has raised her concerns with both her niece and her niece's mother, who knew nothing of her daughter's Web page. ''I don't think the majority of parents have any clue the depth'' of the type of information posted, Werkheiser said.
Much of it, however, is innocuous and, in the case of the MySpace page created by Schultz and Filowitz, poignant. The two professed a love for shopping, the movie ''Dirty Dancing'' and Justin Timberlake.
And, they wrote, ''We are always up for some partyinnnn of course you know how we doooo.''