Exposure of James Comey’s Personal Social Media Accounts Stresses the Importance of Social Media Investigations

By: Jonathan Taber

On March 30, 2017, FBI Director James Comey’s personal Instagram and Twitter accounts were exposed by Gizmodo reporter Ashley Feinberg.[1] While Comey publicly handled the exposure (and his thousands of new followers) in stride, the length of his efforts to camouflage his online identity indicate that the privacy of his accounts was no laughing matter.

The saga of Comey’s exposure began on March 29. When speaking at the Intelligence and National Security Alliance leadership dinner, Comey stated, “One of my daughters shared with me a tweet… actually I’m on Twitter now. I have to be on Twitter… I have an Instagram account with nine followers. Nobody is getting in. They’re all immediate relatives and one daughter’s serious boyfriend. I don’t want anybody looking at my photos. I treasure my privacy and security on the internet. My job is public safety.”[2]

Feinberg appears to have taken his comments as a challenge, and in short order, leveraged the identification of his son’s social media accounts, the name of a federal program Comey helped develop, and Comey’s undergraduate thesis topic to identify both his Twitter and Instagram accounts.[3] Feinberg’s work exposed a major myth subscribed to by privacy enthusiasts: that once a profile’s settings are changed to private, it becomes invisible. While many individuals believe, as Comey claimed to, that their accounts are invisible to the public eye, exploitable channels allow, at a minimum, identification of accounts, and at maximum, full exposure of social media content. What seems to be regularly forgotten is that an individual’s exposure is only truly limited when her or his network of friends or followers adheres to the same commitment to privacy.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Comey’s exposure is that he had made 3,226 posts on Instagram as of March 2017—a content creation rate that is competitive with even the most social media-obsessed millennials. For reference, Kim Kardashian only has approximately 500 more posts than Comey.[4] This represents a wealth of information for any investigator.

The exposure of these accounts shows just how vulnerable even the nation’s top law enforcement professional’s social media accounts can be. BRG employs a wide arsenal of similar social media tactics in its investigations, utilizing analytical databases, public records resources, and investigative methods to identify the potential accounts of subjects, regularly exposing items of interest for clients across various types of engagements, including:

  • Hostile takeover investigations
  • Due diligence investigations
  • Identification of former employees/potential witnesses
  • Compliance investigations

During a hostile takeover attempt, social media investigations can be critical to exposing the true independence of newly nominated independent directors. The true independence of said directors can be tested when identifying their social media relationships and interactions. On numerous occasions, BRG professionals have identified preexisting relationships with other board members and executives for allegedly independent director nominees.

Social media represents an important channel of exposure for adverse or potentially embarrassing conduct. Many subjects carefully curate a public image that may not be indicative of their true personas. Social media can allow investigators to gain a more comprehensive understanding of subjects and the risks associated with client investments.

BRG professionals have used social media as an effective tool to identify former employees and potential witnesses for a variety of cases. By employing various search techniques, BRG has been able to identify profiles across the major social media platforms, such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, as well as other platforms such as Google+, Tumblr, Flickr, BlogSpot, Pinterest, YouTube, and others.

With its rising prevalence in our culture, social media is a crucial avenue of investigation that all too often is overlooked. Our experiences in these matters can provide critical support to any traditional investigation.

Jonathan Taber is a senior managing consultant in BRG’s Global Investigations + Strategic Intelligence practice and is based in New York City.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, position, or policy of Berkeley Research Group, LLC or its other employees and affiliates.

[1] Feinberg, Ashely, “This is Almost Certainly James Comey’s Twitter Account,” Gizmodo (March 30, 2017), https://gizmodo.com/this-is-almost-certainly-james-comey-s-twitter-account-1793843641

[2] Blake, Andrew, “James Comey’s Likely Twitter Account Exposed by Reporter after FBI Director Hails Internet Privacy” The Washington Times (March 31, 2017), http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/mar/31/james-comey-twitter-instagram-reinhold-niebuhr-giz/

[3] Feinberg, Ashely, “This is Almost Certainly James Comey’s Twitter Account,” Gizmodo (March 30, 2017), https://gizmodo.com/this-is-almost-certainly-james-comey-s-twitter-account-1793843641

[4] Kim Kardashian Instagram profile, see: https://www.instagram.com/kimkardashian/

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