Facebook scolds police for using fake accounts to snoop on citizens

Put down that “Bob Smith” fake account, put your hands in the air, and back off, Facebook told the Memphis Police Department (MPD) last Wednesday, waving its real-names policy in the air.

In a letter to MPD Director Michael Rallings, Facebook’s Andrea Kirkpatrick, director and associate general counsel for security, scolded the police for creating multiple fake Facebook accounts and impersonating legitimate Facebook users as part of its investigations into “alleged criminal conduct unrelated to Facebook.”

This activity violates our terms of service. The Police Department should cease all activities on Facebook that involve the use of fake accounts or impersonation of others.

No sweat, the MPD said. We gave Bob the heave-ho before we got your letter. Fox 13 quoted a statement from public information officer Lt. Karen Rudolph:

We have received this letter; however, the account which was opened under the name Bob Smith was deleted prior to receiving this letter. No further comment will be made at this point pending ongoing litigation.

Facebook’s real-names policy is an attempt at maintaining “a community where everyone uses the name they go by in everyday life. This makes it so that you always know who you’re connecting with.”

… an idea that’s controversial, to put it mildly. For years, multiple groups have been telling Facebook (and Google, which dropped the policy four years ago) that using real names online leads to discrimination, harassment and worse, be it previously victimized women stripped of pseudonyms who were then contacted by their rapists, or Vietnamese journalists and activists whose identities were posted online after submitting legal documents to Facebook to prove they needed to use pseudonyms.

Illegal surveillance of legal activism?

In the case of Memphis, it’s police investigators who are being told to stop using fake names. Facebook’s letter was sent following a civil rights lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Tennessee that accused the MPD of illegally monitoring activists to stifle their free speech and protests.

The lawsuit claimed that Memphis police violated a 1978 consent decree that prohibits infiltration of citizen groups to gather intelligence about their activities. After two years of litigation, the city of Memphis had entered into a consent decree prohibiting the government from “gathering, indexing, filing, maintenance, storage or dissemination of information, or any other investigative activity, relating to any person’s beliefs, opinions, associations or other exercise of First Amendment rights.”

Before the trial even began over the ACLU’s lawsuit last month, US District Judge Jon McCalla issued a 35-page order agreeing with the plaintiffs, but he also ruled that police can use social media to look for specific threats: a ruling that, one imagines, would condone the use of fake profiles during undercover police work…

…but not the illegal surveillance of legal, Constitutionally protected activism.

A few months ago, criminal justice news outlet The Appeal reported that the ACLU lawsuit had uncovered evidence that Memphis police used the “Bob Smith” account to befriend and gather intelligence on Black Lives Matter activists.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Facebook deactivated “Bob Smith” after the organization gave it a heads-up. Then, Facebook went on to identify and deactivate six other fake accounts managed by Memphis police.

Relying on court filings in the ACLU case, former litigator Leta McCollough Seletzky wrote that Memphis investigators used the fake Bob Smith account to “cozy up to activists and access private posts.” They also sent uniformed and plainclothes officers to observe protests, noting the participants and taking photographs. They also tracked private events, including a “Black Owned Food Truck Sunday” gathering.

But do we believe that undercover cops shouldn’t drive unmarked cars, or infiltrate criminal networks? How is using a fake name different from other policing techniques that rely on stealth?

It’s easy enough to demand that the real-names policy be applied when the police illegally surveil a group of law-abiding activists. But that doesn’t make it a good policy across the board, as Native Americans, activists living under repressive regimes, or drag queens will tell you.

Police, in certain circumstances, are yet one more group who need to use fake names in their work. They really can’t flash blue lights when they open up Facebook accounts to investigate crooks, including burglars, thugs, muggers, child predators or drug dealers.