Obama DOJ: It's Totally Okay to Impersonate People on Facebook

Buzzfeed has a very disturbing story about the DEA setting up a fake account for a woman on Facebook, including pictures of her and her kids, to set up contacts and investigate them. The Obama administration has filed a brief in court saying it’s totally okay for them to do that.

The Justice Department is claiming, in a little-noticed court filing, that a federal agent had the right to impersonate a young woman online by creating a Facebook page in her name without her knowledge. Government lawyers also are defending the agent’s right to scour the woman’s seized cell phone and to post photographs — including racy pictures of her and even one of her young son and niece — to the phony social media account, which the agent was using to communicate with suspected criminals.

The woman, Sondra Arquiett, who then went by the name Sondra Prince, first learned her identity had been commandeered in 2010 when a friend asked about the pictures she was posting on her Facebook page. There she was, for anyone with an account to see — posing on the hood of a BMW, legs spread, or, in another, wearing only skimpy attire. She was surprised; she hadn’t even set up a Facebook page.

The account was actually set up by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Timothy Sinnigen.

Not long before, law enforcement officers had arrested Arquiett, alleging she was part of a drug ring. A judge, weighing evidence that the single mom was a bit player who accepted responsibility, ultimately sentenced Arquiett to probation. But while she was awaiting trial, Sinnigen created the fake Facebook page using Arquiett’s real name, posted photos from her seized cell phone, and communicated with at least one wanted fugitive — all without her knowledge.

But don’t worry, they totally did nothing wrong:

The DEA’s actions might never have come to light if Arquiett, now 28, hadn’t sued Sinnigen, accusing him in federal district court in Syracuse, New York, of violating her privacy and placing her in danger.

In a court filing, a U.S. attorney acknowledges that, unbeknownst to Arquiett, Sinnigen created the fake Facebook account, posed as her, posted photos, sent a friend request to a fugitive, accepted other friend requests, and used the account “for a legitimate law enforcement purpose.”

The government’s response lays out an argument justifying Sinnigen’s actions: “Defendants admit that Plaintiff did not give express permission for the use of photographs contained on her phone on an undercover 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 [sic].”

That argument is problematic, according to privacy experts. “I may allow someone to come into my home and search,” said Allen, of the University of Pennsylvania, “but that doesn’t mean they can take the photos from my coffee table and post them online.”

“I cannot imagine she thought that this would be a use that she consented to,” the University of Washington’s Calo said.

“That’s a dangerous expansion of the idea of consent, particularly given the amount of information on people’s cell phones,” said Elizabeth Joh, a professor at the University of California, Davis, School of Law.

To say the least. This is pretty appalling.

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  • http://www.gregory-gadow.net Gregory in Seattle

    The self-proclaimed “most transparent administration in American history” has shown itself to be on par with the KGB with its domestic spying. So really, the only surprise here is that it has taken so long for this sort of shit to be discovered: you would have to be irreparably ignorant if you think this was the first time the Obama administration has done something like this.

  • A Masked Avenger

    …and we talk around here about the criminality of posting nude pictures from hacked cell phones; apparently we will get no help from the DOJ, since they apparently make a hobby of that very thing.

    Just kidding. The DOJ might well crack down on non law enforcement for doing such things. There are different rules for the little people, after all.

  • Michael Heath

    Gregory in Seattle writes:

    The self-proclaimed “most transparent administration in American history” has shown itself to be on par with the KGB with its domestic spying.

    Well, no they haven’t. Not even close.

  • marcus

    And when she is threatened or harmed by a fugitive who believes her to be an informant that’ll just be too damned bad.

    Just another bit of collateral damage in the all-important “war on drugs”.

  • dugglebogey

    What happens when the criminals that were contacted by the police without this person’s knowledge, come after her? She’s not just going to be a victim, she’s going to have no idea who they are or why these people are coming after her.

    Stealing someone’s identity without their knowledge is illegal, period.

  • dugglebogey

    Exactly marcus, I should have read your comment first.

  • eric

    How is this not identity theft? And internet fraud?

    From USLegal.com:

    Internet fraud refers to fraud that is committed with the help of the internet. Online services are used to conduct fraudulent solicitations, fraudulent transactions, and to transmit the proceeds of fraud to financial institutio

    This was pretty clearly an online service used to conduct a fraudulent solicitation.

  • D. C. Sessions

    It’s all legal until the prosecutor says it isn’t. And if the prosecutor is the one who’s behind it, well, it’s all legal.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Look, sometimes a federal agent wants to be a pretty girl. There’s no crime in that.

  • Childermass

    The police have always had the ability to outright lie. The only place where they are required to tell the truth is in a court of law, in a sworn affidavit, or the like. Police most definitely can assume false identities. They been doing so long before the Internet was invented, they are not going to magically stop because the Internet has made it easier to do so. Unless some new law is passed with some teeth, it would have shocked me if they were not doing so. And heck, any law would at most require a warrant and some judge would almost certainly just give it to them.

    What is really of concern here is not the police lying, but the police putting an innocent person in danger. I think that might be a more likely path to succeed legally because I don’t think too many people would consider anything she might have said or signed could possibly be consent for that.

  • wscott

    How is this not identity theft? And internet fraud?

    [IANAL, etc] Typically to charge someone with identify theft or fraud, you have to show they did it with the expectation of financial gain. People create bogus FB accounts all the damn time, and unless they’re making money off it somehow the most you can hope for is convince FB to take it down. Plenty disturbing for other reasons, but legally I don’t think they could be charged for this even if they weren’t cops.

  • eric

    [IANAL, etc] Typically to charge someone with identify theft or fraud, you have to show they did it with the expectation of financial gain

    Well thanks to Civil Asset Forfeiture laws, I think I can say with confidence that the State did it with the expectation of financial gain.

  • ffakr

    @Gregory In Seattle would have to be “irreparably ignorant” to believe the Obama Administration is as bad as the current Russian government, let alone he now-defunct KGB.

    Today’s Russian Government, let’s call them KGB-lite, just recently began forcing social media companies to host Russian citizen account data in-country so it’s easy for them to grab. They also recently passed a law requiring bloggers to register their true identities with the Government if their online presence exceeds more than 3000 daily readers.

    Ah KGB-lite.. the people who brought you push-back against complaints of shoddy Sochi construction by pointing out they had surveillance video of people leaving their showers on all day.. yes, they put showers in bathrooms in Russia too.. apparently across the room from the surveillance cameras.

    Now, given that the Obama administration has actually pull back a bit from the surveillance state the previous Administration set up.. like that little bit about bothering to go get warrants and not collecting actual phone calls anymore.. what must the previous Administration be worse than?

    ‘Aw shucks.. That O’Bummer is worse than da K Jee Bee… at least he’s not as bad as that Bush fella.. he was’n worst dan the Mongol Horde!! ‘

  • Pierce R. Butler

    wscott @ # 11: People create bogus FB accounts all the damn time… legally I don’t think they could be charged for this even if they weren’t cops.

    Setting up a fake Facebook account has consequences only for those who engage with the bogus “person” – doing the same with a real person’s identity, just like using someone else’s ID for a drug deal or other crime, creates an actionable harm against the party impersonated.

    I hope Sondra Arquiett becomes a multimillionaire out of all this. If her lawyers know what they’re doing, I may very well get my wish.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Pierce R. Butler “I hope Sondra Arquiett becomes a multimillionaire out of all this. If her lawyers know what they’re doing, I may very well get my wish.”

    I mean, come on! The only thing she should be getting is a long prison sentence! Have you seen her Facebook page?

  • dingojack

    Seen her Facebook page? Pffft I’ve been her Facebook page!

    😉 Dingo

  • zmidponk

    Childermass:

    The police have always had the ability to outright lie. The only place where they are required to tell the truth is in a court of law, in a sworn affidavit, or the like. Police most definitely can assume false identities. They been doing so long before the Internet was invented, they are not going to magically stop because the Internet has made it easier to do so. Unless some new law is passed with some teeth, it would have shocked me if they were not doing so. And heck, any law would at most require a warrant and some judge would almost certainly just give it to them.

    What is really of concern here is not the police lying, but the police putting an innocent person in danger. I think that might be a more likely path to succeed legally because I don’t think too many people would consider anything she might have said or signed could possibly be consent for that.

    I’m not quite sure why you put that first paragraph, because what you detail in the second is exactly what everyone’s getting so disturbed at. If the police were to assume a false identity by pretending to be someone who only exists on paper, the only real risk is on the police officers, which is part of the job. If the police assume a false identity by stealing the identity of a real, flesh-and-blood person, that potentially puts that person at risk, especially if it’s done entirely without their knowledge. It’s entirely possible that, instead of finding out about this through a friend asking her about Facebook photos she knew nothing about, she could have found out about this when she suddenly found herself looking at the wrong end of a gun, held by someone asking her about information she’s passed on to the police – which, of course, she would have also known nothing about.

  • Mobius

    I’m sorry, but isn’t this identity theft? It may be by the government, but that certainly doesn’t make it right.

  • wscott

    @ Eric #12 re asset forfeiture: LOL! Fair point!

    @ Pierce R. Butler #14: I completely agree about it putting her in danger. I was specifically addressing the “isn’t this identity theft?” question as an IANAL legal point. Doesn’t make it okay.

    @ Mobius #18: see my post @ #11.