Can Private Investigators Use Information on Social Media? Here’s How It Works (2023)

Do you want to become a private investigator, or are you planning to hire one? Or are you just curious to know if what you see about private investigators in movies is true?

Who Are They?

Private investigators can conduct stakeouts and follow individuals to learn more about their movements and what they might be doing. They do a legal search through a database online to run a social media investigation to get information and social media evidence on criminal records, marriages and divorces, mortgage records, romantic partners, and voter registrations. They may be able to look through the trash if it is legal in that location and not on private property.

They can also interview friends, family members, associates, and neighbors to learn more about the person or find out where they might be. Any of this information can be used to build a case and to find out as much as possible about the subject they’re keeping an eye on. They can gather the information over time and then report back to the person who hired them with all the information they have found.

How Does a Private Investigator Work?

The time needed to perform a social media investigation depends on the scope of the investigation. In most cases, it takes investigators several hours to conduct a social media investigation. Once the investigation is complete, the investigator will create the report to document their findings for the client, often within a day or two.

The traditional way private investigators do their business usually involves gathering evidence through surveillance, physical evidence such as written documents, or pictures such as those that law enforcement agencies use.

Social Media Accounts as a Data Pool

Almost everyone needs to have a social media profile to feel like they are truly alive, and a search engine is of more value than most people realize. This growing phenomenon of click-and-follow profiles makes it more and more practical that even a working private investigator does not limit his areas of investigation to the traditional means but cannot avoid the social media evidence. A personal investigator can make social media investigations through the available pool of social media data.

Statistics show that more than 81% of US residents use social media sites regularly. Up to 79% of adults in the United States use Facebook almost every day.

The most popular social media sites include:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • YouTube
  • LinkedIn
  • Instagram
  • Google +
  • Reddit
  • Tumblr, and others.

This list could go on and on.

The number of social media accounts users worldwide has reached almost 3 billion. It’s important to know that only 1 billion people used social networks in 2010. This is more than a 100% increase and more than double the initial social media accounts that were in existence a decade ago.

That means we can say that almost everyone has or is connected to an existing social media account. That is a viable means of gathering data.

Online Privacy and the Stored Communications Act

Under The Stored Communications Act (SCA), law enforcement officers, nor any private investigator, cannot bridge the privacy of stored internet communications. Facebook, Instagram, and other social media sites have often cited this act when there is a decision or query from officials to subpoena their records.

However, in the federal rule, social media data is accessible for social media investigations when it comes to criminal cases because the social media company will cooperate with the authorities. The SCA has limited use of social media companies as it has been overruled if the request for their records does not overreach and is deemed relevant to the case.


A substantial part of private investigators’ work is on online content. With public directories and other information freely available, a private investigator can get much information without leaving their office. However, there are limits to the information they can obtain online. A private investigator can check social media accounts to see what is publicly posted.

They cannot hack into any social media account to see what has been posted privately or collect private information about someone. They also cannot hack into email accounts, mobile phones, tablets, personal computers, or other private accounts online to get information about their subject.

Protected Information Can’t Be Obtained Without Consent

There is information that a private investigator cannot obtain without consent to grant access. This information includes bank accounts, financial records, and phone records.

The private investigator may be able to find out where someone has a bank account, for instance, but they cannot find information about how much money the person has in their bank account.

If they have consent, they can view relevant information in phone records that include data from social networking sites’ posts, photos, Google, and other search engines that might be relevant to their case. But they cannot see the records without consent. They also cannot gain access to additional information that may be protected, though this can vary based on state laws.

Suppose someone has locked down their social media account, and most information is restricted. This is a foggier area, but one approach that has worked is simply asking a judge for a warrant. Demonstrate sufficient likelihood that a social account holds pertinent information, and a judge should be able to grant access for a closer look.

The catch, of course, is that this applies to official investigations where a PI would most likely be working for an attorney like Ehline Law, not independent investigations for a direct client. It’s essential to explain these limitations to clients when starting a search for online data. Information to be used in court needs to be gathered by a professional third party, so a client can’t simply bring you social media data they’ve found and expect it to be successful evidence.

Contact Ehline Law if You Have Questions

If you have questions about the legality of using social media profiles or posts, we invite you to contact our firm at (213) 596-9642

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