UNCUT: AFP says Facebook putting "lives at risk"

Is Facebook running out of friends? Hur hur.

The following is a longer, uncut version of a story that appeared on the front pages of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald yesterday.

Facebook's woeful relationship with law enforcement bodies is hampering police investigations and putting lives at risk, the Australian Federal Police says.

AFP assistant commissioner and head of high tech crime operations Neil Gaughan will fly to Washington DC today for a high level meeting convened by the US Department of Justice in which senior law enforcement officials from around the world will discuss their concerns with the social networking website.

Both state and federal police have told The Age the company has been unwilling to provide police with the intelligence they need for investigations. They want Facebook to appoint a dedicated law enforcement liaison in Australia who can match user accounts suspected of criminal activity to physical Internet addresses, for example.

''This [current] situation could lead to loss of life, there's no doubt about that at all,'' Mr. Gaughan told The Age. ''It's just a matter of time.''

However Facebook doused expectations of such a hire in a statement issued to The Age. ''Facebook does not put [law enforcement] people in every country where Facebook has users; it's just not the way companies scale,'' the statement said.

A senior investigator with a state police service said Facebook was prepared to assist officers when someone's life was in danger, but otherwise ''they give you the bird,'' he said.

''They only comply to subpoenas issued by a US court,'' said the investigator, who did not wish to be identified.

Police services have also demanded Facebook's law enforcement guidelines document be brought into line with Australian law and legal terminology. Mr Gaughan said that in one case Facebook had ignored an Australian warrant because it was issued by a judicial officer rather than a court as its current guidelines require.

''Information was not provided and it slowed down our ability to... obtain a search warrant for a premises,'' Mr. Gaughan said. ''In this instance we still got the result but much slower than should have been the case.''

Facebook has recently faced criticism over the vandalism of tribute pages set up to honour the victims of crime. Pages dedicated to slain teenagers Elliot Fletcher, Michele Morrissey and murdered child Trinity Bates among others were defaced.

On Monday night Senator Stephen Conroy lambasted the site over its ''complete disregard'' for its members privacy during a senate estimates hearing, and the company is facing intense media scrutiny following the death of Sydney teenager Nona Belomesoff two weeks ago, who met her alleged killer, a man posing as a wildlife carer, via Facebook.

The trial of Melbourne man Ron Felicite, who killed his wife over her involvement with a man she met via the social networking site, has also made headlines and the company is weathering a grassroots backlash over controversial changes to its privacy policy.

''It's not only Australia where we're having these issues with Facebook,'' Mr. Gaughan says. ''I know it's a significant problem in the UK... what I'm hearing from my US and Canadian counterparts is this is also issue for them.''

Senior law enforcement representatives from the UK, USA and Canada will also attend the meeting in Washington on Thursday, which will be chaired by the US Department of Justice National Coordinator for Child Protection and Interdiction Ms. Francey Hakes.

Facebook's rival social networking site MySpace did have a dedicated law enforcement liaison in Australia, Mr. David Batch. He was made redundant last year following the site's decline in market share.

Mr. Batch, a former AFP agent, said he had worked closely with police. ''The only service I could provide was an intelligence service... but that was enough to keep law enforcement on side and happy,'' he says.

''Nine times out of 10, intelligence would be enough to get [investigations] over the line.''

Police can use such intelligence to locate suspected offenders and then to apply for search warrants to gain access to the suspect's computer, for example. But such intelligence cannot be used as evidence in a trial -- only evidence collected via the Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters Act of 1987 can be used in court.

Under the complicated mutual assistance regime police requests for correctly formatted, admissible evidence are funnelled between the Attorneys General in each country.

Mr. Batch says a typical request via the mutual assistance act typically takes 6-18 months to be returned.

In a written statement Facebook said it works closely with the Attorney General's Department and the AFP to make ''our law enforcement requests as efficient and helpful as possible''. The company said it dedicated ''significant resource to Australian law enforcement relationship building and information processing''.