Justice Department Creates Fake Facebook Profiles With Stolen Identities — And It's Not OK

In a stunning Orwellian twist, the U.S. government set up a fake Facebook profile using the real name and images of a young New York woman in order to bring down a drug ring. According to BuzzFeed News, which broke the story, a DEA agent created the fraudulent profile in 2010, stealing personal information and photos from a woman arrested in connection with the targeted drug ring. In another strange twist, the Department of Justice initially stood by the fake profile — until it realized maybe infringing on a person's right to privacy isn't the way to go.

According to BuzzFeed News, this bewildering story surfaced when the woman whose identity was stolen, 28-year-old Sondra Arquiett, sued the federal government in June 2013 for impersonating her on Facebook. Arquiett, who was previously known as Sondria Prince, alleges that DEA Agent Timothy Sinnigen created the profile after her arrest in July 2010. The lawsuit states that Sinnigen used "revealing and/or suggestive" photos taken from Arquiett's cell phone, including photos of her in her underwear. The fake Facebook profile also featured images of Arquiett's underage child and niece, according to the lawsuit.

In August, the Department of Justice finally responded to the lawsuit with a court-filing defending the government's right to create fake profiles and impersonate others on Facebook. Sinnigen used the Facebook page to "friend" and send messages to a "wanted fugitive who evaded arrest," according to the filing:

Defendants admit that Agent Sinnigen created an undercover Facebook page in Plaintiff’s name, but deny that it was “publicly available”. In response to Paragraph 11 of the Complaint, Defendants admit that Plaintiff did not give express permission for the creation of the Facebook page, but state the Plaintiff implicitly consented by granting access to the information stored in her cell phone and by consenting to the use of that information to aid in an ongoing criminal investigations.

The Justice Department also denies in the filing that the photos of Arquiett were "suggestive," even though one image showed her in "either a twopiece bathing suit or a bra and underwear."

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Although the Justice Department was pretty forthright about taking a person's information to create a counterfeit social media account, calling it a "legitimate law enforcement purpose," the agency is already backpedaling on its behavior. The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that Justice Department officials plan on reviewing their federal law enforcement policies — essentially, whether or not it's ethical to steal someone's image without their permission to investigate a case.

As it turns out, Arquiett's case is not an isolated incident. In 2013, the Department of Justice reportedly created a social media guide that taught officers how to create and use a fake Facebook profile — even though Facebook bans the practice. According to the guide, law enforcement using fake social media profiles must have approval from their supervisors, and document their online activity.

The guide said officers can use an "online alias" for the following reasons. However, the guide doesn't address whether it's OK for law enforcement to take on a person's real identity — without their permission — in an online profile:

1. Is based upon a criminal predicate or threat to public safety; or

  1. Is based upon reasonable suspicion that an identifiable individual, regardless of citizenship or U.S. residency status, or organization has committed a criminal offense or is involved in or is planning criminal conduct or activity that presents a threat to any individual, the community, or the nation and the information is relevant to the criminal conduct or activity; or
  2. Is relevant to the investigation and prosecution of suspected criminal incidents; the resulting justice system response; the enforcement of sanctions, orders, or sentences; or the prevention of crime; or
  3. Is useful in crime analysis or situational assessment reports for the administration of criminal justice and public safety.
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Facebook has declined to comment about the case, but the company did tell BuzzFeed News that it removed Arquiett's fake profile this week because it "violates our community standards." Facebook is very big on persona authenticity, and continually cracks down on fraudulent or abusive pages.

The social media giant's identity and privacy guidelines, which apply to law enforcement, are clear:

On Facebook people connect using their real names and identities. We ask that you refrain from publishing the personal information of others without their consent. Claiming to be another person, creating a false presence for an organization, or creating multiple accounts undermines community and violates Facebook's terms.

Images: Getty Images (3)