Can the Government Create a Fake Facebook Page Using Your Identity?
In 2010, a New York woman named Sondra Arquiett learned that her identity had been stolen. Someone had created a false Facebook page with her name that included racy photos of her. The page was complete with “friends”, comments supposedly made by her, and private messages. Arquiett reported the page and soon found out that U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Timothy Sinnigen was responsible for stealing her identity.
Arquiett was arrested not long before the page was set up for involvement in a drug ring. The judge sentenced her to five years’ probation, which included six months of weekend incarceration and six months home detention. While awaiting trial, Sinnigen used Arquiett’s seized cell phone to set up the false online profile without her knowledge.
Arquiett sued Sinnigen in federal district court in Syracuse, New York for violation of privacy and placing her in danger. The government defended the agent by stating Arquiett “implicitly consented by granting access to the information stored in her cell phone and by consenting to the use of that information to aid in an ongoing criminal investigations”.
Eventually, without taking responsibility, the Justice Department settled on $134,000 to be rewarded to Arquiett.
Was This Legal?
According to Facebook’s “Community Standards”, “Claiming to be another person…violates Facebook’s terms”. A spokesman for Facebook says law enforcement is not exempt from the site’s policies. But, this is just a policy, not a law. Are there any laws that apply?
In 1984, New York State enacted the Personal Privacy Protection Law. This law prohibits an agency (like the DEA) from collecting personal information (such as Arquiett’s photos) unless it is “relevant and necessary” to an agent’s goal that must be accomplished by law. Also, when an agency requests personal information from an individual (which the DEA failed to do), the agency must disclose how and why the information is being used (also failed in this aspect).
Facebook has since taken down the fake profile of Arquiett. Even though the Justice Department refused any responsibility for violating privacy laws, at least Arquiett received a settlement and she has since had her probation terminated.