Thursday, December 1, 2011

Technology Outpacing the Law?

On Monday, the Associated Press published an interesting article describing how advancing technology (specifically Facebook and smartphones) have developed faster than the law can keep up with. T specific issue in question is the ability of inmates to use said technology to harass and intimidate their victims.

Previously, for an inmate to intimidate potential witnesses or harass their former victims they would have to obtain the services from somebody on “the outside”. Now, with the increase in the number of smuggled phones coming into prisons, inmates can use these devices to harass and intimidate on their own. Since 2008, the number of telephones confiscated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons has doubled to 3,684.
Unfortunately, in many of these cases it is difficult to determine who is actually sending the messages. Even in the rare occasion where they are able to determine the inmate is the one sending the harassing messages, they often face no serious consequences.

Another issue is that these inmates have seemingly found gaps in existing laws. For example, in some states, “no contact” orders do not apply to persons once they are in custody. However, due to the increasing awareness of this issue some states are now starting to take action in an attempt to prevent this type of harassment. Oregon legislators passed a law preventing inmates from contacting their domestic violence victims from behind bars; California officials are beginning to work closely with Facebook to identify and delete inmate accounts. California legislators have also enacted a law which punishes corrections employees or visitors up to six (6) months in jail for smuggling in smartphone devices; inmates in California caught with smartphones can lose up to 180 days of early-release credit, although no additional time is added to their sentences.

This harassment and intimidation makes it harder for the legal system in that many witnesses may choose not to testify due to the fear of being harmed. Victims of inmates are in fear of what will happen to them when the inmate is released. Victims are also fearful that these inmates now have access to their victims’ information, including pictures and names of family members.

For some, the easy solution for the victims is to: 1) delete their Facebook account; 2) block the inmate from viewing their page and sending messages; and/or, 3) setting their Facebook page to the highest privacy settings. There is no doubt merit to these suggestions (for anybody wishing not to have their life made public via Facebook), although these suggestions are not 100% effective. Many of the more tech-savvy inmates will find ways around these safeguards, and there are still other ways for inmates to use their access to technology to harass and intimidate outside of Facebook. While all individuals need to take steps to protect their privacy to a level they see fit, states must also take steps to close loopholes in their laws and create more suitable consequences to deal with developing technology and its possible misuse.

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