20-year old Joshua Lipton received a 2-year sentence in a Rhode Island court after he drove drunk and caused a crash that very seriously injured another driver.

Two weeks after Lipton was charged, he attended a Halloween party dressed as a “jail bird” – and the photos showed up on Facebook, a popular social networking site. In the pictures, Lipton is posing with his tongue sticking out in a black-and-white striped shirt and an orange, prison-style jumpsuit with the words “JAIL BIRD” printed on the chest.

Jay Sullivan, the prosecutor involved in Lipton’s case, discovered the incriminating pictures on Facebook and used them as evidence in court, claiming that Lipton was a “unrepentant partier” who “lived it up” while the female victim of the crash remained in the hospital. The judge officiating the trial agreed, deeming Lipton “depraved,” and ultimately handed down a 2-year prison sentence.

Facebook and other social networking sites, including MySpace and the new Google site, Orkut, allow people to stay in touch, post pictures, and send messages. Recently, Facebook instituted updated privacy features, and individuals with a profile can now control who is able to search for them and who can see their profile and pictures. Even with stringent privacy settings, a person with the right Internet tools can still access certain information.

Prosecutors have found these social networking sites to be quite useful when preparing trial evidence, and they are not the only professionals who look for questionable information on these sites. Many companies now check Facebook and MySpace prior to hiring new recruits in an attempt to get a more in-depth idea of a candidate’s personal life.

It’s not hard to do. In fact, MySpace and Facebook profiles now appear in the results listings when you do a Google search for a person’s name. If the profile is public, anyone can access their profile information, including pictures.

What can you do to protect your privacy? Most companies will tell you that it is wise to delete your Facebook or MySpace profile when applying and interviewing for jobs in an effort to prevent an embarrassing frat party photo from affecting your chances of getting your dream job. If you don’t want to delete your profile, it is advisable to adjust your privacy settings: for example, Facebook allows you to control whether or not companies or colleges are able to view your profile in a search, and also allows users to set their photo albums to “Friend’s Only” or “Private.”

If you’re unwilling to alter your privacy settings, it is certainly smart to remove any questionable photos. Pictures of an individual drinking, partying, or engaging in any debatable acts may cause future embarrassment and could even be used against you in court in the event that you are charged with a criminal act.

And even if an individual thinks that they have taken all the necessary precautions, a professional with the right software tools could still be able to access private information.

Both Facebook and MySpace offer a variety of account options and can be contacted in the event that a user has a question, as Internet safety is an issue of increasing concern.

Related article courtesy of MSNBC.com.

Nicolette Kuff is a freelance writer from Upstate NY.

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