Facebook Tells Cops Its 'Real Name' Policy Applies To Law Enforcement Too

from the ignorance-of-the-policies-is-no-excuse dept

Facebook's real name policy forbids fake profiles. Needless to say, this rule is broken all the time. Fake profiles are created every day. When they're discovered, they're shut down. People like breaking rules and a handful of moderators per millions of users can't really keep up. We expect this kind of juvenile bullshit from average jerks like you and me, but shouldn't we be expecting more from our public servants?

Of course we should. And Facebook -- finally -- is feeling the same way, as Dave Maass reports for the EFF.

This summer, the criminal justice news outlet The Appeal reported on an alarming detail revealed in a civil rights lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Tennessee against the Memphis Police Department. The lawsuit uncovered evidence that the police used what they referred to as a “Bob Smith” account to befriend and gather intelligence on activists. Following the report, EFF contacted Facebook, which deactivated that account. Facebook has since identified and deactivated six other fake accounts managed by Memphis police that were previously unknown.

In a letter to Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings dated Sept. 19, Facebook’s legal staff demands that the agency “cease all activities on Facebook that involve the use of fake accounts or impersonation of others.”

Fake Facebook accounts being used by law enforcement is nothing new, but we are hearing about it more frequently these days. Law enforcement officers should probably respect the rules put in place by service providers, but if they're not going to, it's up to service providers to enforce their terms of service.

No doubt being singled out for abusing Facebook policies will feel unfair to law enforcement personnel, who have used fake accounts to surreptitiously surveil Facebook users for the purposes of compiling criminal charges. There's nothing illegal about it -- at least as far as the courts can tell -- so it's really all about taking advantage of your host's hospitality.

Facebook's letter [PDF] basically just reiterates long-existing policies and asks the Memphis PD to knock it off. It's unclear what the company will do if it suspects the MPD has ignored its "we see you" letter. It does appear the MPD has lost a few of its undercover accounts, as the letter states Facebook has "disabled the fake accounts [Facebook] identified" in its "investigation."

If history is any indication, some words will be exchanged (in letter form) and then not much else will happen. Dave Maass notes the EFF brought the DEA's use of fake profiles to the company's attention four years ago. Some letter writing ensued then, but there's nothing on the record indicating the DEA has ceased setting up fake profiles or that Facebook is proactively monitoring accounts for signs of fakery. Since neither side seems to be taking the fake profile issue seriously, fake accounts set up by law enforcement will continue to proliferate.

On the plus side, law enforcement can no longer pretend it's unaware setting up fake profiles violates the terms of service. The company's "Information for Law Enforcement Authorities" has been updated to make it clear there's no law enforcement exception to the Facebook rules. But it's likely the use of fake profiles will continue unabated. After all, you can't catch scofflaws without breaking a few policies, right?


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  • icon
    Bamboo Harvester (profile), 27 Sep 2018 @ 2:13pm

    Nothing new...

    We had cops masquerading as "real people" back on FIDOnet and RIME. I suspect even back on the internet from inception, though back then it was probably more Federal agencies than local police.

    I have to wonder if putting "no fake names, cops not excluded" has an legal standing in court if evidence is presented that was collected by a cop using a nom de guerre on Facebook, though.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Agammamon, 28 Sep 2018 @ 1:17pm

      Re: Nothing new...

      It doesn't. If cops are allowed to actually break laws when pursuing cases (undercover cops embedded in criminal enterprises) there's no way 'they broke the terms of the EULA so I as to have this evidence disallowed' is going to fly.

      In some Federal circuits (at least) its already precedent that simply violating ToS is not a criminal CFAA violation now so we won't get to see any undercover cops prosecuted in Federal court for this though.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Bergman (profile), 28 Sep 2018 @ 3:12pm

      Re: Nothing new...

      I once sent an email in response to a Usenet post that very likely has me on a BATFE watchlist to this day. In hindsight, it was pretty obviously an undercover attempt to link a fireworks hobbyist newsgroup to terrorism, but being young and stupid I replied to it.

      But I think I amused the investigator, because aside from a single interview with a federal agent, I didn't get any trouble out of it -- the 'recipe' I sent to the poster looked legit and proper, but was carefully written to cause ascending levels of injury to the person trying to follow it, starting with a very intense jump scare and ending with their death if they ignored the scares and injuries from following previous steps.

      What was the post I replied to about, you wonder? Someone wanted instructions on how to make an explosive, conceal it inside a children's toy, and set it to detonate when the toy was picked up. There is no good or legitimate use for such a thing. This was around 25 years ago.

      So yeah, undercover cops on the internet is nothing new.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      btr1701 (profile), 4 Oct 2018 @ 3:25pm

      Re: Nothing new...

      > I have to wonder if putting "no fake names, cops not excluded" has an legal standing in court

      No, it doesn't. It's no different than an undercover cop hanging out in a bar that's law enforcement unfriendly and has a "no warrant, no cops allowed" sign on the front door.

      Do you think Joe Pistone, the FBI agent who went undercover as "Donnie Brasco" cared that most of the places he hung out gathering intel and evidence against the Bonanno crime family had a "no cops allowed" policy? Do you think his violation of those business' policies mattered to the court when the case ultimately came up for trial?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Sep 2018 @ 2:16pm

    Isn't violating the TOS for a website a CFAA Violation?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Sep 2018 @ 2:23pm

    Does not forbid fake profiles

    Facebook's real name policy forbids fake profiles.

    No, it doesn't, you just need to put your "real" name on the fake profile. FB are not (yet) checking to see if you travel as much as you claim, for example.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Bamboo Harvester (profile), 27 Sep 2018 @ 2:32pm

      Re: Does not forbid fake profiles

      Considering how many people use cellphones with the GPS still on to access Facebook, don't be so sure they don't know how much travelling you do...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Sep 2018 @ 2:42pm

    Hax!

    Seems like when Aaron Swartz was being prosecuted, not following the TOS was called Hacking, and punishable by prison.

    Don't see why having a badge makes it any different.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
      identicon
      Another Screen Name, 27 Sep 2018 @ 2:48pm

      Re: Hax!

      Seems like when Aaron Swartz was being prosecuted, not following the TOS was called Hacking, and punishable by prison.

      That's just not true. Swartz went to some trouble to find a closet to hide in, downloaded many gigabytes that he (techically) wasn't allowed to because not student / faculty, with intent of distributing said files and thereby doing a side step on the company that had paid to library them. That's HACKING. In any case, wan't mere TOS violation, that's just your wacky "libertarian" world-view making up a memory so can believe that you're a victim.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 27 Sep 2018 @ 3:12pm

        Re: Re: Hax!

        What a strange reply. I am not a victim, nor did I claim anything remotely like that. Your reading comprehension let you down.

        Not only that, you are completely incorrect. Yes, he hid in a closet, and yes, he downloaded many many documents. He also evaded attempts by MIT to kick him off the network. But, he did have legitimate access to the site (JSTOR).

        Because of this, the Feds chose to prosecute him for violating the Terms Of Service of MIT and JSTOR. They said that action was felony hacking.

        Seriously. Go google it.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      ShadowNinja (profile), 28 Sep 2018 @ 9:12am

      Re: Hax!

      That's what I was going to say.

      If CFAA is the law then it seems it should be applied consistently or not at all. That way people will realize how bad it is and repeal it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Yu Fuels, 27 Sep 2018 @ 2:43pm

    BREAKS Techdirt's notion of catching criminals on social media.

    Back when railing before SESTA / FOSTA passed, you asserted that allowing prostitutes and sex-traffickers to openly use Backpage allowed the police ease of catching them (and since, assert that they can't find them). -- That's silly ultra-libertarianism.

    Since (surely) subterfuge to the extent of false name is necessary, police won't be able to operate on "social media" if this Facebook policy survives. -- Which it won't. -- What's next? Facebook can in ten minutes change TOS to require identify as police officer!

    UN-workable, WON'T be accepted by anyone less than intent on destroying civil society.

    Just another cause for regulatory crack-down on lunatic / left / liberal / libertarian crack-pots.


    so it's really all about taking advantage of your host's hospitality.

    NO. Corporations are FICTIONS, only PERMITTED to exist by grace of We The People so long as serve OUR purposes, NOT enabling criminals. WE owe corporations NOTHING: they owe us TAXES for using The Public's marketplace, infrastructure, courts, and so on. PERIOD.

    Just yet again shows how Techdirt favors corporations over "natural" persons. Techdirt is in practice more Fascist than Hitler: at least Hitler used corporations for the good of The People. (You may now divert with claim that I say Hitler is good and implies Jews aren't people. -- And yet it's Techdirt that promotes the same corporatism! I'M the one against corporatism!)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 27 Sep 2018 @ 2:56pm

      Re: BREAKS Techdirt's notion of catching criminals on social media.

      Since when has the peoples purposes been aligned with a full on police surveillance state?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 27 Sep 2018 @ 7:25pm

        Re: Re: BREAKS Techdirt's notion of catching criminals on social media.

        When communist dictators are in charge? Where 'the peoples' is defined as the party. Which means that purging suspected dissidents and robbing everyone else to support their high lifestyle is good for 'the people'.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 27 Sep 2018 @ 3:47pm

      Re:member when you quit TD?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Stephen T. Stone (profile), 27 Sep 2018 @ 4:04pm

      WE owe corporations NOTHING: they owe us TAXES for using The Public's marketplace, infrastructure, courts, and so on.

      Have fun storming Elon Musk’s castle to get the money! (We’ll bury you at sea after the cops finish with you.)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Agammamon, 28 Sep 2018 @ 1:21pm

      Re: BREAKS Techdirt's notion of catching criminals on social media.

      So, police can't just read Backpage ads? They need to have a fake account in order to do so?

      And, uh, sex traffickers aren't using Facebook to connect to customers.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Agammamon, 28 Sep 2018 @ 1:24pm

      Re: BREAKS Techdirt's notion of catching criminals on social media.

      "they owe us TAXES for using The Public's marketplace, infrastructure, courts, and so on. PERIOD."

      So, the products and services a company provides are actually useless to society and all that counts is how much tax income they produce?

      That's a weird way of looking at things.

      By my account, a company is socially useful if they provide me a good or service I am willing to pay for - even if they pay no taxes.

      Like, say, Amazon. By your reckoning, Amazon should be shut down - since they pay no tax. By your standard, Amazon provides nothing of value 'to society' (let alone individuals).

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Jeff Green (profile), 27 Sep 2018 @ 2:44pm

    The trouble is ...

    I am British.
    Why does that matter here? Well we Brits don't actually have "legal names". We have a system for changing names, called a deed poll which doesn't change your name at all it just provides a form of evidence as to what your real name is, you can change your name any time you like, as often as you like, to (almost) anything you like.
    If you want proof of your name you pay £14 for a deedpoll and fill it out. Then you can change your mind 2 minutes later, pay another £14 and prove you have a new name.
    Your name, as far as the UK is concerned is the name by which you are known. You are entitled to change it when you want, certain actions (like getting married or divorced) allow you proof of a new name for free, but you don't need to actually do anything official, simply let everyone who needs to know your name what you wish to be called and that's done.
    So if a Brit has 6,000 facebook accounts in different names every single one of them could be in their "real name".
    It's a funny old World.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Bamboo Harvester (profile), 27 Sep 2018 @ 3:04pm

      Re: The trouble is ...

      It's not much different in the US to change your legal name. IIRC, you need to post publicly in a local media (usually the LEGAL NOTICES section of a local paper) for thirty days, then provide that as proof before either a Justice or an Administrative Law Judge (the guys who handle parking tickets), pay the filing fee (under $50), and the Court will issue the paperwork you need to get your Driver's License and such changed.

      If you want your Birth Certificate changed to another name (or any other changes), you need to hire a lawyer to deal with the Social Security Administration, and it may get done before you die of old age.

      I'm in prison country, I see the "I, Tony Gizzidichi, will hereafter be known as Fat Tony" in the local papers frequently.

      I've been tempted to change my name to Innocent Bystander on several occasions. :)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    takitus (profile), 27 Sep 2018 @ 2:49pm

    Tim,

    People like breaking rules and a handful of moderators per millions of users can't really keep up. We expect this kind of juvenile bullshit from average jerks like you and me, but shouldn't we be expecting more from our public servants?

    I understand that this is tongue-in-cheek, but it’s a poor choice of phrasing. It probably goes without saying here on Techdirt, but creating an pseudonymous account isn’t “juvenile bullshit”, it’s sometimes a life-or-death decision. Facebook’s real-name policy is extremely dangerous and has already caused harm to users. As gratifying as it is to see people get caught abusing the service for surveillance, it should be 100% clear that this policy is unacceptable.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Zgaidin (profile), 27 Sep 2018 @ 4:30pm

      Re:

      I'm a little skeptical, but willing to be convinced. In my mind, the likely scenarios (barring police surveillance) are a) getting caught posting something you probably should have known not to say with your real name attached (e.g. posting negative shit about your boss and getting fired) or b) being one of the people who really does need anonymity because you post about controversial things. If it's the first case, the same rules have applied all your life. Don't say shit in public that, if it gets back around to the wrong people, will get you in trouble. If it's the second, why were you on FB in the first place? Why not Twitter or Instagram or any other social media platform that doesn't have this rule?

      Again though, I'd be happy to be proven incorrect if you can provide a citation or two. :)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        takitus (profile), 27 Sep 2018 @ 10:01pm

        Re: Re:

        I'd be happy to be proven incorrect if you can provide a citation or two.

        The previous post did provide a citation, which it seems that you did not bother to read:

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Facebook_real-name_policy_controversy#Affected_users

        Even Facebook has been forced to acknowledge that this policy has put users in real danger.

        In my mind, the likely scenarios (barring police surveillance) are a) getting caught posting something you probably should have known not to say with your real name attached (e.g. posting negative shit about your boss and getting fired) or b) being one of the people who really does need anonymity because you post about controversial things.

        This is extremely narrow-minded. Depending on the country, LGBT people, atheists, activists and those exercising basic free speech rights in criticizing their governments or institutions are regularly targeted for expressing themselves on the Internet. In these places, anonymity is very much a life-or-death issue. It should not be necessary to remind anyone on here of this.

        why were you on FB in the first place? Why not Twitter or Instagram or any other social media platform that doesn't have this rule?

        The existence of less invasive alternatives does not justify a harmful and unnecessary policy.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Zgaidin (profile), 27 Sep 2018 @ 11:02pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          You are correct. I glanced at the URL, missed the last part, and erroneously assumed it was a Wikipedia entry on the specifics of the policy. My bad. As an aside, I was disturbed by the section on transgender people. Those pseudonyms are, at least to the general public, effectively their names in many cases. This is mirrored in the mention of publicly performing drag-queens and their stage names. Why is it okay for a corporation (a legally fictional person to use their company name for a profile, but not a public performer? Does that apply to authors with pen-names?

          As for your comments about the dangers to LGBT, atheists, activists, etc. I'm certainly not going to argue your point, since it's a point I made myself (or was trying to, which I think you recognized based on your follow-up quote). I don't see anything narrow-minded about it, as those were some of the exact groups I was thinking of when I mentioned people who actually post controversial things, and I'm quite aware that they do need that protection when addressing the public. We agree. I do not, however, agree with your last statement, at least not wholly. It's not the existence of less intrusive alternatives that gives it some measure of pardon in my mind, but rather that I can see a necessity argument.

          I have not used FB in at least 8 years, and I was a very late adopter in the first place. I tried it for 6-12 months, decided it wasn't for me, and left it. I was, however, quite impressed with it's ability to accurately find people to suggest as friends who I had known irl, often many years before that and then fallen out of contact. That's a major portion of the service's appeal and design, and that feature would take a huge hit without some (not necessarily the current) real name policy. Even if the system correctly found you suggestions, how would you know? That's a fantastic example of a bona fida business necessity for any law class.

          Could the policy be improved? Obviously! I was already familiar with some of the examples of accounts erroneously disabled because someone's naming convention didn't jive with American/Western European standards. I think they've been mentioned in an article here, actually. Perhaps FB could institute a new type of account, call it a public persona account, for authors, artists, activists, companies, and government groups (local PD, town councils, etc.) with different questions during profile creation and basing suggested "friends" based solely on shared interest rather than more personal data. I don't, however, think that it makes some sort of real name policy unnecessary, and so long as they do choose to have such a policy, going in eyes-open as to potential harm either for using your true name or violating the policy should be SOP.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 28 Sep 2018 @ 3:05am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            Another group who may wish to avoid using the real names are those who do not want an abusive ex-partner to locate them.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • icon
              Zgaidin (profile), 28 Sep 2018 @ 5:38am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              A good point, and not one I'd thought of. However, do you agree that such a choice would limit the functionality of the service? Certainly, you could tell your family, friends you are in contact with now, coworkers, etc. so they could find your profile, but anyone you didn't tell, more distant relatives perhaps or friends you don't have contact information for, would not find you.

              Again, I'm not saying the current policy is the best policy, but simply that the opposite of no such policy would undermine the service FB is trying to provide.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • identicon
                Anonymous Coward, 28 Sep 2018 @ 7:16am

                Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

                However, do you agree that such a choice would limit the functionality of the service?

                If the purpose of the service is to allow people to remain in contact with those they want to, and maybe join groups of 'strangers' no. People should have the choice of whether they use their real name, or a nickname depending on their circumstances and needs. It most definitely should not be a choice of allowing old 'friends' to find them or not use the service at all.

                Why should someone be prevented from remaining anonymous to join the likes of FaceBook if their only interest in doing so is a support group using that platform?

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Agammamon, 28 Sep 2018 @ 1:37pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          OK, your link to people 'affected by this policy' is a list of people who couldn't get an account (or lost an account) because Facebook couldn't handle unusual name formats or have last names that are similar to slurs. Not a 'list of people who have been harmed' by this policy. A list of people inconvenienced by it, sure.

          Beyond that is a generalized 'drag queens' cant' post under their drag persona because some idiot keeps reporting them and Facebook can't deal with entertainer pseudonyms. Except they can - you just use one of the other account types that are set up for entertainment acts.

          https://www.facebook.com/therealrunthejewels/

          And the final one is a generalized 'some people can't blog (on Facebook?) under their real name because they'd be persecuted'. No actual list of people harmed by this. Would be hard to find anyone harmed by this since there are tons of other ways to post content online under fake names.

          The existence of less invasive alternatives does not justify a harmful and unnecessary policy.

          It doesn't have to.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Agammamon, 28 Sep 2018 @ 1:27pm

      Re:

      Unacceptable to who? Because there are millions of people for who this is perfectly acceptable.

      If you don't like it - make your own social media empire. With blackjack. And hookers.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Padpaw (profile), 27 Sep 2018 @ 3:15pm

    I would be curious if those fake profiles are used to setup entrapment.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 27 Sep 2018 @ 3:20pm

    Gee the FED's like to pile up CFAA charges when people access publicly accessible data that shouldn't have been out there for the public to see so the company can save face...
    Perhaps some CFAA charges are in order...

    I mean we've seen cops stealing peoples ID's to trap drug dealers & getting a free pass having set the person up for drug dealers responses to being 'sold out'. Perhaps we should be happy they are inventing fake people...

    Also... activists.
    Pretty sure we can still protest & organize against things we find to be unacceptable...
    Who authorized the surveillance?
    Or was this its on FB so you have no rights?
    Or is this like the fusion centers that produced detail reports on the actions of grandmothers who were protesting & their WMD was to use chalk on a sidewalk to express their displeasure & the centers tracked them better than a sex offender on a day pass to an amusement park??

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 27 Sep 2018 @ 4:08pm

      Re:

      Or is this like the fusion centers that produced detail reports on the actions of grandmothers who were protesting

      Actually that makes sense if you equate protecting the country with protecting the government. A few terrorists are unlikely to bring a government down, but organized citizens can, and without breaking the law.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Bob Smith, 27 Sep 2018 @ 4:10pm

    Why do people accept friend requests for people they do not know?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 27 Sep 2018 @ 5:22pm

      Response to: Bob Smith on Sep 27th, 2018 @ 4:10pm

      "Why do people accept friend requests for people they do not know?"

      Because people refuse to separate their online life from their real world life?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Dan (profile), 27 Sep 2018 @ 4:58pm

    Doesn't the CFAA come into play?

    I don't understand how the article can say fake Facebook accounts aren't illegal. Doesn't the CFAA make violating the terms of service a crime?

    Can someone explain? (Other then people with power can skirt the law. I already know that.)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Jono793 (profile), 28 Sep 2018 @ 1:29am

      Re: Doesn't the CFAA come into play?

      I was thinking that myself!

      Potentially it could be. Especially now Facebook has served a legal notice that this kind of bullshit violates their ToS. Some court cases seem to have held that accessing a system in violation of the terms of service constitutes "unauthorized access" for the purpose of the act.

      I wouldn't be surprised if there's some kind of law enforcement exception though.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Sep 2018 @ 7:06pm

    Welcome to the Internet

    Where the men are men, the women are men, and the children are FBI agents.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Samuel Abram (profile), 28 Sep 2018 @ 5:43pm

    "Bob Smith"

    Isn't "Bob Smith" the lead singer of The Cure?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Oct 2018 @ 4:40pm

    What if they are fake cops?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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