When Disa Powell’s husband and brother were badly burned in an electrical explosion while conducting maintenance at a Wal-Mart store and the family sued, the defense went after something she never expected: her online life.
Through a subpoena seeking information about the men’s injuries, Wal-Mart was able to gain full access to her Facebook and MySpace social-networking accounts — every public and private message, contact and photo for the previous 2 1/2 years.
There were the pictures of Powell’s newborn baby lying in a hospital bed after heart surgery (Label: “The hardest day of Mommy and Daddy’s life”). The messages detailing problems with her pregnancy (“I got a bladder infection, which has moved to my kidneys”). […]
The case, which was settled out of court in January, offers a window into an issue that in recent weeks has riled members of Congress, consumer advocacy groups and tens of thousands of account holders: what your social-networking sites know about you and whom they share it with.
Many online service providers over the past few years have been building huge dossiers with minute details of each user’s online activities — a practice that isn’t usually mentioned in privacy policies. Some companies anonymize the data, while others do not. Some store detailed data for a month, while others keep it for years.
At the same time, the ease with which outsiders can access the data is increasing, as corporations, insurance companies and parties in divorces or employment disputes make widespread use of subpoenas.