The Justice Department published a social media guide for law enforcement officials this year that explicitly says officers create fake profiles even though Facebook officially bans the practice.
“I was looking for a suspect related to drug charges for over a month. When I looked him up on Facebook and requested him as a friend from a fictitious profile, he accepted,” one officer responded in an open-ended survey question in the DOJ’s guide. “He kept ‘checking in’ everywhere he went, so I was able to track him down very easily.”
This officer isn’t alone. More than 80% of the responding officials said social media was a valuable tool for crime-fighting and that “creating personas or profiles on social media outlets for use in law enforcement activities is ethical.”
The NYPD has a specific policy addressing the creation of online aliases. Created in 2012, the memo from commissioner Raymond Kelly stated police must register intended aliases with the department and use a department-issued laptop, the New York Daily News reported.
For example, the NYPD has even used photos of young women on Facebook to spy on suspected gang members, the New York Times reported. By spying on suspects in this way on Facebook, cops can get clues about the whereabouts of potential criminals.
Of 1,221 federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies that use social media in some way, four out of five agencies said they use social media for investigations, according to a July 2012 survey by LexisNexis Risk Solutions cited in the guide.
“Social media is a valuable tool because you are able to see the activities of a target in his comfortable stage. Targets brag and post … information in reference to travel, hobbies, places visited, appointments, circle of friends, family members, relationships, actions, etc,” one respondent wrote in the LexisNexis survey.
These actions directly violate the section of Facebook’s terms of service that says users may not “provide any false personal information on Facebook, or create an account for anyone other than yourself without permission.”
Facebook avoided any specific comment on police officers’ profiles, but a spokesperson did offer, “It is a violation of our policies to use a fake name or operate under a false identity, and we encourage people to report anyone they think is doing this, either through the report links we provide on the site or through the contact forms in our Help Center.”
“When I send an email, I’ve shared it with the Internet provider,” Cole told NPR. “When I search the Web, I’ve shared it with the Web company. When I walk around with my mobile phone, I’m sharing with the mobile phone company my whereabouts. All of that information has lost its constitutional protection, and the government can get it without having to make any showing that you’re engaged in illegal activity or suspicious activity.”
We spoke with Bradley Shear, an attorney with expertise in the intersection of social media and the law, about whether suspects who challenged information obtained through fake Facebook profiles would have a good case.
“That’s a good question,” he said. Basically, these issues are so new, no one knows how courts will handle them. But the courts seem fine with subterfuge in the non-digital arena, Shear said, noting police often pose as prostitutes or drug dealers to catch criminals.