Obtaining information from social media accounts typically begins by collecting digital information from a user's device – their computer, cell phone, or tablet. Additional valuable information can often be found on synced accounts, such as iCloud, based on the user's account setup. Of course, the information available will depend on what the social media platform is designed to capture, but will almost always include “friends” or connections, photos, and captions or other descriptive text from a post.
But what is there to do when a device doesn't contain what you're looking for? Or the device is missing? Or the owner has died? The next step can be to send a subpoena to the provider (Apple, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.) This paper will brief you on what you need to have ready, what you need to ask for, and where you can submit such requests.
Note that laws do not generally allow for the collection of communications or data by private parties (individuals). In most cases for a non-law enforcement party to request information a lawsuit must be filed.
What to Prepare
Each site requests different information, but typically includes information regarding the case and jurisdiction. In many cases the website will inform you of what content is available, but it's a good idea to have in mind the specific information you need. Make sure to supply date ranges if possible.
In some cases you will need to know the exact entity on whom you are serving the subpoena. For instance, Facebook requires that you serve the regional entity that owns an account, such as Facebook Inc., Facebook Canada, etc.
Keep in mind that when responding to the subpoena, the social media provider will stay very close to the line when providing what is requested. Make sure you know the exact name of the account in question. If there is any doubt about the name of the account, other steps might need to be taken prior to requesting data from the provider. Some digital forensic providers and private investigators can offer services to identify the accounts associated with an individual. In many cases this service will uncover other accounts that have been used in the past or other account names. If you don't know an exact account name, the providers are generally not going to be able to help.
Managing your expectations is another important part of this process. Many sites, like Facebook, will be clear about their inability to recover deleted items. In some cases they will do a quick attempt to recover any lost data, but will classify this as a rarity or by-product of the deletion process. They will never guarantee the ability to get back any data that has been deleted – on purpose or accident.
Where to Submit
All of the large social media sites have information a portal for submitting subpoenas. We have included several of the most requested platforms below (please note that over time, these links may change). If so, or to look for the place to submit for other social media sites, you can use phrases like “SocialMediaSite subpoena” on internet search engines.