The United States Drug Enforcement Agency co-opted a woman’s identity to create a fake Facebook page as a ruse to investigate suspects, BuzzFeed reported.
The agency posted racy pictures of the woman, then known as “Sondra Prince,” as well as a photo of her young son and niece, to the sham page. The photos were taken from her cellphone, which the agency had seized.
Prince had been arrested on charges of participating in a drug ring but ultimately was found to be a bit player and sentenced only to probation.
However, while she was awaiting trial on those charges, DEA Special Agent Timothy Sinnigen reportedly created the Facebook page and posted the photos without her knowledge or permission.
Prince, whose name now is “Sondra Arquiett,” is suing the DEA and the United States government.
The DEA’s defense includes the claim that the fake Facebook page was “used for a legitimate law enforcement purpose, during the course of which Sinnigen posed as plaintiff on the undercover Facebook page.”
The DEA contends that Sinnigen is entitled to qualified immunity and that Prince does not have a First Amendment right to privacy in the photographs contained on her cellphone.
Prince relinquished any expectation of privacy she might have had with respect to those photographs, according to the DEA. It denies that Prince’s Facebook page was publicly available.
As to the availability of the page, various media outlets have published photos copied from it, some with Prince’s face pixellated, in connection with their coverage of the story. As of 8 a.m. PT on Tuesday, TechNewsWorld was able to view the page but chose not to further violate Prince or her family’s privacy by republishing any of the images. Later on Tuesday, the Facebook page no longer was available.
The agency and the U.S. government deny liability under Bivens, or the Federal Trust Act.
Karen Lesperance, assistant U.S. attorney in the Northern District of New York, is co-representing the DEA, together with her boss Richard Hartunian.
“This identity theft by law enforcement is very troubling,” Greg Nojeim, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology, told TechNewsWorld. “It not only hurts the victim, who clearly did not consent to this use of her information, but it also erodes trust in law enforcement.”
DEA spokesperson Matt Borden referred TechNewsWorld to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of New York because “this is still a matter under litigation handled by [that office] and we’re mandated to push all inquiries to them.”
Lesperance did not respond to our request to comment for this story.
More on the ID Theft Allegation
Prince “implicitly consented [to Sinnigen’s actions] 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 investigation,” the DEA argues.
It admits Sinnigen used the page to send a “friend” request to a wanted fugitive who was evading arrest, but contends the page was “used for a legitimate law enforcement purpose, during the course of which [Sinnigen] posed as plaintiff” on the page.
“Even assuming that the government’s search of the phone itself was lawful, which is still in question, impersonating a person on Facebook and posting their private photos without their consent certainly raises serious questions about the DEA’s practices,” Nate Wessler, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, told TechNewsWorld.
Posting the photos, “including photographs of minor children and of this woman in positions that she clearly didn’t want public, is an extreme piece of trickery by the DEA,” Wessler continued.
One Law to Rule Us All
“The [U.S.] Department of Justice has prosecuted others for faking Facebook profiles before, in the Lori Drew case,” Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told TechNewsWorld. “To see [it] doing now what it has in the past argued was a felony is ironic.”
The creation of the fake Facebook Page is potentially a Wiretap Act violation and violates state ethical rules, Hanni Fakhoury, another EFF staff attorney, told TechNewsWorld.
“If the DEA doesn’t fix this [problem] itself, Congress should,” CDT’s Nojeim said. “Law enforcement is shooting itself in the foot with this kind of conduct.”