Undercover cop outed on Facebook, woman arrested for posting photo

Filed Under: Facebook, Featured, Law & order, Privacy, Social networks

Melissa Walthall and George PickensIt's not uncommon these days for police to use the internet and social networks like Facebook to gather information about criminals and criminal activity.

But a recent case proves that undercover police on Facebook should be careful not to find the tables turned against them, and their Facebook profile used against them.

A US woman, Melissa Walthall, 30, of Mesquite, Texas, was arrested on Monday and charged with a felony violation for posting a photo of an undercover police officer onto her Facebook page.

A federal affidavit says that Walthall was retaliating against the officer for testifying against a friend, George Pickens, in a drugs case.

Pickens has been charged in the past with drug, disorderly conduct and theft offenses and is now facing federal drug and weapons charges.

The affidavit says that police who searched Pickens's home found an unregistered, sawn-off shotgun under his bed, 28 grams of methamphetamine, bags for packaging, and a scale.

In addition, police found fliers that looked like "garage sale signs" featuring the undercover officer's image.

According to the Dallas Morning News, after her friend's arrest, Walthall allegedly posted a photo of this flyer onto her Facebook page:

"Undercover Mesquite Narcotics. . Anyone know this bitch?"

Court documents claim that it was Pickens who had originally found the photo on the undercover investigator's Facebook page.

Facebook policePickens and his brother, Bobby Stedham, then printed the fliers hoping to blow the officer's cover, an affidavit charges.

Walthall's post was spotted by an acquaintance who tipped off Mesquite police about her post.

A police investigator found the image, confirmed it was posted by Walthall, and interpreted it as a "viable threat to that officer’s safety," the affidavit said.

According to the Dallas Morning News, Walthall has an active misdemeanor drug case. Bobby Stedham, 26, who was also charged with retaliation, likewise has multiple marijuana convictions.

Retaliation is a federal offense that can result in a prison term of up to 10 years.

According to the Texas Penal Code, retaliation occurs if:

A person... intentionally or knowingly harms or threatens to harm another by an unlawful act... in retaliation for or on account of the service or status of another as a public servant, witness, prospective witness, or informant...

But is posting a photo to Facebook an "unlawful act"?

As pointed out by one observer, it's hard to imagine such an act as unlawful when the officer himself publicly posted his own image onto Facebook.

Walthall and Stedham's alleged act of outing an undercover officer is clearly, rationally an act of retaliation and spite.

Police tools, courtesy of ShutterstockBut on purely legalistic grounds, it's another matter entirely, given the wording of the statute and its reliance on an "unlegal act" taking place to constitute the crime of retaliation.

I called the International Association of Undercover Officers to determine whether there's any other law that might cover the purposeful outing of an undercover officer, but a 23-year veteran of undercover work told me that he knew of none.

When I asked what type of training police receive before undertaking undercover work, he said that many officers simply learn on the job, with no training about keeping their identities out of public view.

That's a problem, not only with young people posting their images onto social networking sites before they've made up their minds to go into undercover work, but also with Google's facial recognition technologies and the ubiquity of Street View imaging, he told me.

Police departments seem to lack a consistent approach to policing their officers' use of social media. Policies are all over the map.

Given this case, maybe it's time to change that.

I'd suggest that police departments start protecting their own by educating undercover cops about how easy it is for them to be outed by their own social media activities.

Come to think of it, that's a good lesson for us all.


Police equipment image courtesy of Shutterstock

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13 Responses to Undercover cop outed on Facebook, woman arrested for posting photo

  1. me, a cop? · 732 days ago

    others have already identified this problem...
    http://www.itwire.com/business-it-news/security/5...

    In this case, it was the head of Australia's Security Intelligence Service.

  2. BradT · 732 days ago

    It really is a joke. Why on Gods green earth is any UC Officer on FB at all? On top of that why can't they learn how to use it properly....

    • feltores · 732 days ago

      Exactly, not the brightest movie.. it's like a silly comedy movie lol.

  3. Richard · 732 days ago

    "... its reliance on an "unlegal act" taking place ..."

    "Unlegal"? Is that a new word? :o)

    "Me fail English? That's unpossible!"

  4. Biffo · 732 days ago

    Just recommended Naked Security/Sophos to 4 people yesterday during a discussion on FB security (somewhat of a misnomer I know)..

  5. Andrew Symmons · 732 days ago

    FORGET SECURITY ON ANY ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKING NOT JUST FACE BOOK.
    If you don't want to be known stay off them.

  6. Jerundio · 732 days ago

    In a era where there's face recognition soft in a $90 mobile, a undercover agent having a f.b is a joke....

  7. DeadCaL · 732 days ago

    I'm guessing no one involved in this knows what privacy settings are.

  8. foo · 732 days ago

    "Walthall and Stedham's alleged act of outing an undercover officer is clearly, rationally an act of retaliation and spite."

    I disagree. It is "clearly, rationally an act" to warn people to avoid the "undercover officer."

    Unless the flyer suggested or encouraged the reader to engage in a harmful act against the "undercover officer," the posting of the flyer did not meet the legal definition of "retaliation."

    Please consider the ramifications of Waithall's arrest. For example, a person who takes video of an undercover officer"'s attempt to provoke peaceful demonstrators to engage in violence and then posts that video on YouTube could be likewise charged.

    • Paul Ducklin · 732 days ago

      "Anyone know this bitch?"

      I must agree, this doesn't sound at all like an attempt, by someone who's pretty angry, to find out who the guy is, for whatever (admittedly unstated) reason. It sounds, as you say, just like a rational public warning to avoid him.

      Irony aside, I'm not sure your example is a good analogue. If the stuff published on FB in this case had been a picture of said officer attempting to persuade otherwise law-abiding citizens to buy or take drugs, the two situations might bear comparison.

      It's bad enough having your friends put photos of you on FB without permission without having to worry about your enemies...

  9. Johann · 731 days ago

    There is actually a very good reason for anyone working undercover to be on Facebook. Of the people I know in similar situations, they are actually required to use Facebook so that if anyone tags a picture of them, they are notified and can ask that person to remove the picture, etc. If they aren't on Facebook, they would never know, and couldn't monitor for possible security problems. Of course, they don't post anything to the account of their own accord.

  10. @undefined · 728 days ago

    I cant help but consider that the facebook account may have been in the name of the cover identity.

  11. This actually poses a sticky situation...under what context is it okay to out an undercover officer on social media?

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.