U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Timothy Sinnigen used a seized cell phone to create a phony Facebook account of a woman for law enforcement purposes to find and communicate with wanted fugitives. The use of a phony social media account has been used in the past but not to this standard. Sondra Arquiett, whose identity was used, did not give express permission for the use of her photographs on her cell phone to be used to create an undercover Facebook page, although the young women did give consent to access the information in the phone.
Sondra Arquiett, also known as Sondra Prince, did not know her identity was being used until a friend asked about the pictures she was posting on Facebook. Arquiett was surprised due to the fact that she did not even have a Facebook account. The photos ranged in appearance. In one picture she is accompanied by her son and niece who are both young in the picture. This picture can pose as a threat to her family. In another, Arquiett is wearing her bra and underwear or a two-piece bathing suit. Sondra Arquiett even noted that these pictures were to never be shared publically.
Arquiett was arrested in July 2010 due to being accused of participating in a conspiracy in distributing cocaine. “She pled guilty in February 2011, and in a court filing, federal prosecutors recommended a reduced sentence, noting that she was not a significant player in the conspiracy and had promptly accepted responsibility.” She was accused of aiding her significant other, Jermaine Branford, and his associates in processing and storing cocaine in her apartment. Her phone was confiscated during her arrest and the account was made before her court appearance.
Chris Hamby “Government Set Up A Fake Facebook Page In This Woman’s Name” October 20, 2014
Student Researcher: Bryanna Sharot, Indian River State College
Faculty Evaluator: Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D., Indian River State College
As stated in the article, there is an ongoing tradition of deception being used as methods to perform law enforcement purposes, yet these tactics have been legal. For example, an officer can assume an alias (a false identity) to go undercover. The only difference in this situation is that Special Agent Timothy Sinnigen used an actual person’s identity instead of a fictional character. In addition, the woman did not give consent to use her identity, neither did she know of the whole ordeal until later in the investigation.
This case raises legal and ethical questions. Arquiett may have given consent to access her personal information in her phone, but she did not give consent to distribute it on the social media. Professor Elizabeth Joh of the University of California, Dais School of Law says, “That’s a dangerous expansion of the idea of consent, particularly given the amount of information on people’s cell phones”. Did the government over extend their ability to access the information in the cell phone? “I may allow someone to come into my home and search, but that doesn’t mean they can take the photos from my coffee table and post them online”, stated Anita L. Allen of the University of Pennsylvania. How would you feel if this situation happened to you? That is, the situation where you did invite a stranger into your home and to explore your living quarters. Yet, this person, whom you did not know, took your family photos and distributed them onto the social media publically.
The distribution of Arquiett’s personal photos violated the young women’s privacy. There was no consent and the government had no right to share her personal belongings, the pictures, to the public. According to Allen, “It reeks of misrepresentation, fraud, and invasion of privacy.” These pictures were suggestive and dehumanizing. Also, one of the pictures was of her family. This picture could have put her family in danger. Even leading privacy experts found the whole case disturbing.
The Community Standards of the Facebook website state, “Claiming to be another person, creating a false presence for an organization, or creating multiple accounts undermines community and violates Facebook’s terms.” Moreover, according to a Facebook spokesperson, there is no exception to the policy, even for law enforcement. After BuzzFeed broke the story, Facebook sent a comment to BuzzFeed saying that it removed the profile due to the fact that it violated the community standards.
The day before BuzzFeed launched their story, the Justice Department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. redirected all press questions to the DEA. The DEA, in return, declined to answer any of the questions. Instead, it directed all questions to the local U.S. attorney’s office in Albany, New York. Once again, this office also did not respond to the multiple questions asked. Yet twenty four hours after the article was released on BuzzFeed Brian Fallon, of the Justice Department, said, “The incident at issue in this case is under review by Justice Department officials”. Is the government ashamed of their actions? Is this why they have been quiet and unresponsive to the questions asked about the case? Although, the Justice Department is claiming that the Special Agent did have the right to impersonate the young women.
There is no law prohibiting the government from creating a social media account using a person’s identity. “The technologies we have now are enabling all sorts of new uses,” stated Neil Richards, who is a professor at the Washington University School of Law. “There are a whole bunch of new things that are possible, and we don’t have rules for them yet.” Facebook is relatively new to the world and there hasn’t been a case similar to the one at hand, so there are no rules or laws wrapped around what the government can and cannot do legally in this situation. Should the government be able to invade a person’s privacy in order to solve a case? As discussed here, this raises serious ethical as well as legal questions.