After upsetting drag queens with its name policy, Facebook is now targeting government agencies using fake profiles to conduct investigations on its service. News broke that Facebook had sent the DEA a letter about its use of fake profiles in which it essentially tells off the agency, particularly over its use of one woman’s identity in an investigation. Essentially the message is that the same rules for civilians apply to government operatives using the social media site. By creating a fake profile and using the real-life identity of a particular person, the DEA had violated the terms and conditions of use.
Sondra Arquiett, the woman who was impersonated by the DEA, was arrested on drug charges in 2010. At the time, her cell phone was seized by officials from which they apparently acquired photos of Arquiett. These photos and her information were subsequently used to create a Facebook profile used in ongoing investigations. Upon discovering this, Arquiett sued the DEA, requesting $250,000 in damages. Records indicate that the case has been sent to mediation, but that did not prevent Facebook from weighing in on the matter.
According to a letter sent by Facebook’s Chief of Security Joe Sullivan, the DEA was in direct violation of the company’s naming policy by using a fake profile leading the social media company to tell them off. This policy created controversy earlier this year when drag queens and some transgender individuals had their accounts frozen because they were not in their legal names. At the time, it was considered an attack on created identities which may have as much or more meaning to the individual as their legal names. Some in the LGBT community were concerned that this would adversely affect trans individuals who were in the process of changing their names or whose birth names caused emotional anguish when used and displayed. Facebook later clarified its policy as being about the “authentic” names that people were known by in everyday life. This conciliated both drag queens and the LGBT community and many profiles were reinstated.
Where the DEA matter diverges from the policy is in the authentic portion. The profiles created by the agency were completely concocted identities with no basis in real life. The use of them in investigations violated Facebook’s community policy. The deception involved has parallels to online bullying, which is one of the social media websites primary concerns in protecting its users. According to the letter sent to the DEA, “Such deceptive actions are often used to further harmful conduct” and “this impact is markedly different from undercover investigations in the ‘real’ world.” In addition, the guidelines state that users agree not to use a profile to infring on another person’s rights in any way. This ostensibly involves appropriating another person’s identity, which the DEA did int he case of Sondra Arquiett.
According tot he DEA, the matter is under review and is not considered a normal practice for investigations. The Justice Department is investigating Arquiett’s case after initially defending the actions by saying that Arquiett had implicitly agreed to such actions. The case brought against the DEA by the woman in question, however, points to a whole different scenario and may be part of the reason why the department has changed its tune. Facebook, on the other hand, has been remarkably consistent with its naming policies and the use of fake profiles making telling off the DEA well within its usual practice.
By Lydia Bradbury