A recent case out of Memphis exposed the trend of fake law enforcement accounts when protesters reacted to the police killing of 19-year-old Darrius Stewart.
A lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Tennessee uncovered evidence that the police used what they referred to as a “Bob Smith” account to gather intelligence on activists.
According to a report out of NBC,
Smith acted as if he supported the protesters, and, slowly, they let him into their online community. Over the next three years, dozens of them accepted his friend requests, allowing him to observe private discussions over marches, rallies and demonstrations. In public postings and private messages he described himself as a far-left Democrat, a “fellow protester” and a “man of color.”
But Smith was not real. He was the creation of a white detective in the Memphis Police Department’s Office of Homeland Security whose job was to keep tabs on local activists across the spectrum, from Black Lives Matter to Confederate sympathizers.
The detective, Tim Reynolds, outed himself in August under questioning by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, which sued the police department for allegedly violating a 1978 agreement that prohibited police from conducting surveillance of lawful protests. The revelation validated many activists’ distrust of local authorities. It also provided a rare look into the ways American law enforcement operates online, taking advantage of a loosely regulated social media landscape — and citizens’ casual relinquishing of their privacy — to expand monitoring of the public.
Because fake Facebook accounts are not against the law, there is no recourse other than reporting them to Facebook. However, when one goes down, another pops up in its place.
“Every high-tech crime unit has one,” said an officer who uses an undercover account to monitor gang members and drug dealers in New Jersey and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid having the account exposed or shut down, according to NBC. “It’s not uncommon, but we don’t like to talk about it too much.”
Facebook has since deactivated six other accounts from the Memphis police department alone. As EFF recently reported, in a letter to Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings dated Sept. 19, Facebook’s legal staff demanded that the Memphis police “cease all activities on Facebook that involve the use of fake accounts or impersonation of others.”
In the letter to the Memphis Police Department, Facebook further writes:
Facebook has made clear that law enforcement authorities are subject to these policies. We regard this activity as a breach of Facebook’s terms and policies, and as such we have disabled the fake accounts that we identified in our investigation.
We request that the Police Department, its members, and any others acting on its behalf cease all activities on Facebook that involve impersonation or that otherwise violate our policies.
But this will likely never stop as spying on individuals through social media has long been a tool of law enforcement. Some departments have even gone so far as to steal other people’s images and use them as their own.
As TFTP reported in 2014, the DEA was caught stealing a woman’s photos and using them to create their own fake profile.
Out of 1,221 federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies that use social media today, more than 80% of the responding officials said social media was a powerful tool for crime-fighting and that “creating personas or profiles on social media outlets for use in law enforcement activities is ethical.”
The good news is that while law enforcement continues to skirt the policies of social media companies to spy on you, there are ways to spot them. Below is a list of ways to spot fake Facebook accounts.
How to identify fake accounts on Facebook:
- Account was made recently 2017, 2018.
- Account has no history published for earlier years, but Facebook says they have been a member since 2009, etc.
- Most fake accounts have 1 image or no real profile photo of the person. Some may only have a select few photos over a long span of time. A well seasoned user would have more photos posted over a long period of time. A fake account may have 7-10 photos posted on the same day.
- User has very few friends in common and or friends in general.
- There is little to no interaction on their page with friends, no comments, likes or responses over their long time line.
- Profile picture seems to good to be true, that hot model added you today! They even messaged you and are interested in you!
- When in doubt use reverse image search. Take their image and see if it is a real person or not. You can do that here.
- When in doubt deny, deny, deny.