from the LAPD-teaching-respect-for-the-law-by-playing-by-its-own-rules-wtaf dept
Law enforcement agencies routinely engage in surveillance of social media accounts. Some of this is accomplished with third-party tools that use keywords and geofences to give cops info that may be relevant to investigations. These tools also give cops a lot of garbage data that law enforcement is free to sift through for officers’ own entertainment or to bypass constitutional protections surrounding speech and warrantless searches.
Does it actually help combat crime? The jury (if a court would ever allow one to consider these issues…) is still out on that. But social media surveillance continues under the theory that anything someone published publicly should be accessible by cops since it’s accessible by everyone else.
But the constitutional metric changes (or at least should) when cops set up fake accounts to engage in surveillance of suspected criminals. In these cases, cops may be welcomed into more private circles where information can’t be accessed unless a person has been given access.
This isn’t a new problem. It dates back to 2009, when Facebook was gaining critical mass and Twitter was just starting to generate enough interest to become (very eventually) sustainable. Twitter’s account verification process allows users to engage without turning over much personal info. The same can’t be said for Facebook, which would prefer to have its user base verified with as much personal info as possible — something that was supposed to limit abusive behavior but just ended up giving the platform plenty of actionable (and sellable) demographic info. Facebook insisted on real people and real names and altered its policy to inform users that setting up bogus accounts was something that could result in account termination.
Cops didn’t care. They had online lurking to do in hopes of finding something prosecutable without ever leaving the office. Facebook warned law enforcement that setting up fake accounts wasn’t permissible in 2018 after news surfaced showing cops were bypassing these rules to do a little online fishing for potential criminals.
Facebook is now Meta. It is also still Facebook, albeit under a new umbrella corporation. The rules about “real names” still apply to Facebook account creation. And law enforcement officers are still continuing to ignore this rule. Three years after its last letter addressed to cops about terms of service violation Meta is sending out another one [PDF]. It reiterates what officers already know but are apparently of the belief Facebook/Meta won’t actually do much to enforce.
The letter references Los Angeles Police Department activities exposed by the Brennan Center. The LAPD apparently encourages officers to set up fake accounts to locate and surveil criminal suspects. The practice is common enough that the LAPD actually has policies governing the use of social media surveillance via dummy accounts. But the policies ignore Facebook’s rules, which take precedence over the LAPD’s rules. After all, it’s Facebook’s platform, not the LAPD’s playground.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice and media reports the Los Angeles Police Department (“LAPD”) has been instructing its officers to create fake (or “dummy”) Facebook accounts and impersonate legitimate users. Not only do LAPD instructional documents use Facebook as an explicit example in advising officers to set up fake social media accounts, but documents also indicate that LAPD policies simply allow officers to create fake accounts for “online investigative activity.” To the extent these practices are ongoing they violate our terms of service. While the legitimacy of such policies may be up to the LAPD, officers must abide by Facebook’s policies when creating accounts on our services. The Police Department should cease all activities on Facebook that involve the use of fake accounts, impersonation of others, and collection of data for surveillance purposes.
This alone won’t prevent the LAPD from violating Facebook’s terms of service to engage in online surveillance. Facebook will have to determine which accounts are fake and terminate them. But this letter gives the LAPD notice that when its bogus accounts are terminated, it will have zero recourse.
The letter also says the LAPD is violating other Facebook rules, albeit indirectly.
It has also come to our attention that the LAPD has used a third-party vendor to collect data on our platforms regarding our users. Under our policies, developers are prohibited from using data obtained on our platforms for surveillance, including the processing of platform data about people, groups, or events for law enforcement or national security purposes (https://developers.facebook.com/terms/#control).
Again, this won’t stop the LAPD from utilizing services it’s paid for. But it does make it clear that if Facebook ever decides to terminate access to this firehose being abused by third parties, neither the third parties or their LAPD beneficiaries will be able to do anything but bitch ineffectively about the loss of access to a surveillance tool.
Subterfuge is often essential to law enforcement investigations. But that doesn’t mean private companies are obliged to provide cover for undercover surveillance. Law enforcement has been told (at least twice) that govern regular people also govern government employees — people who often seem to believe they’re above rules, laws, and even the rule of law.