Feds Settle Facebook Impersonation Suit

The U.S. Justice Department is about to pay a New York woman $134,000 over investigative tactics it once described as “legitimate law enforcement”. In October of 2014, the story of Sondra ...
Feds Settle Facebook Impersonation Suit
Written by Josh Wolford
  • The U.S. Justice Department is about to pay a New York woman $134,000 over investigative tactics it once described as “legitimate law enforcement”.

    In October of 2014, the story of Sondra Arquiett hit the web. Arquiett claimed DEA agents stole her identity and gave it new life on Facebook after commandeering her cellphone upon her arrest in 2010. She was subsequently sentenced to probation for a small role in the sale of drugs.

    According to reports, the agents 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 law enforcement purposes. In other words, the DEA tried to trick suspects into revealing information by making them think they were communicating with Arquiett.

    This all went down in 2010, and in 2013 Arquiett sued the federal government for the online impersonation. The DOJ defended the DEA’s actions at first, saying they were initiated for “legitimate law enforcement purposes” and that Arquiett “implicitly consented” to the use of the information in her cellphone when she granted agent access.

    But it looks like they don’t want to take that argument to court. According to the AP, the feds are rushing to make this all go away. The Justice Department has reportedly reached a $134,000 settlement with Arquiett. The DOJ did not admit to any wrongdoing.

    “This settlement demonstrates that the government is mindful of its obligation to ensure the rights of third parties are not infringed upon in the course of its efforts to bring those who commit federal crimes to justice,” said Richard Hartunian, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of New York, in a statement. “It also takes into account emerging personal privacy concerns in the age of social media, and represents a fair resolution of plaintiff’s claims.”

    So, the Arquiett case is one case in which the feds are happy to cut its losses and run. But what about the future? Will federal agents continue to set up fake social media accounts and impersonate people online?

    The latest settlement doesn’t address that specifically, but a DOJ spokeswoman addressed it, albeit vaguely.

    From the AP:

    The settlement does not specifically prohibit the DEA from using similar undercover tactics in the future, but a Justice Department spokeswoman said in a statement that department leadership had already met with law enforcement agencies to “make clear the necessity of protecting the privacy and safety of third parties in every aspect of our criminal investigations.”

    Unsurprisingly, nothing concrete here.

    For Facebook’s part, the company really would like the feds to stop impersonating people on the site. Last October, when details of the Arquiett case came to light, Facebook sent a strongly-worded letter to the DEA, asking that the agency “cease all activities on Facebook that involve the impersonation of others.”

    “Facebook is a community where people come to share and interact using their authentic identities. As our Chief Product Officer recently explained, this core principle is what differentiates Facebook from other services on the internet. And requiring people to use their real identities on Facebook is ‘the primary mechanism we have to protect millions of people every day, all around the world, from real harm.’ The DEA’s deceptive actions violate the terms and policies that govern the use of the Facebook service and undermine trust in the Facebook community,” it read.

    “Most fundamentally, the DEA’s actions threaten the integrity of our community. Facebook strives to maintain a safe, trusted environment where people can engage in authentic interactions with the people they know and meet in real life. Using Facebook to impersonate other abuses that trust and makes people feel less safe and secure when using our service.”

    Image via DEA, Twitter

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