Facebook has strict policies against users setting up fake accounts on the social network, and the Los Angeles Police Department is in violation of those terms and policies, according to a letter from the social media giant’s assistant counsel for civil rights, Vice President Roy Austin.
Austin wrote a cease and desist letter asking the LAPD to stop setting up “fake (or dummy) Facebook accounts” to “impersonate legitimate users” and collect data for surveillance.
“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’,” Austin wrote.
At issue is a conflict between Facebook and police department policies, and an apparent Facebook double standard when it comes to fake accounts.
“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,” Austin wrote. “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.”
In 2019, the LAPD used social media surveillance software from Voyager Labs, which collects and analyzes data from suspects’ friends and social media networks, according to documents obtained through public record requests made by the nonprofit Brennan Center of Justice. Surveillance of suspects’ social media friends is severely problematic for digital privacy advocates.
Voyager Labs claims its software can analyze large amounts of data to discern users’ motives and beliefs and help solve crimes, BBC reported. The LAPD said in emails that the software had been especially useful in investigating street gangs online and in collecting evidence for its robbery and homicide division.
Facebook argues that LAPD’s spying and impersonating users goes against its reason for existence, which is to enable people to “connect and share with real people using their authentic identities,” BBC reported.
Facebook has been slow in the past to take action against misleading political ads, online scams and the negative effects of social media on teens, so its strong stance against the LAPD is surprising, said Robert Potter, an Australian security expert specializing in legal surveillance. Potter built the Washington Post’s cybersecurity operations center.
In August, Facebook banned the accounts of U.S. academics researching political ads on its platform. The researchers argued that their work was vital in maintaining democracy and keeping Facebook’s practices transparent. Facebook said the researchers’ data-scraping browser extension tool undermined its security.
“It’s genuinely interesting to see that Facebook has become the nexus for so many problematic communications, from child trafficking and terrorism communications to Covid disinformation,” he told the BBC. “Yet they seem to care more about the LAPD misusing their platform than sometimes they do about China or Russia.”
Potter said he believes fake names can be justified in situations where there is internet censorship or when human rights activists or journalists want to protect their privacy online.
“If you’re not cracking down across the board on malicious actors using your platform, you don’t have strong grounds to crack down on legitimate use of the platform,” Potter said.
The LAPD encouraged police to collect social media account information from suspects and create a “fictitious online persona” to spy on them, New York Post reported.
Facebook said the LAPD is infringing on its users’ “First Amendment protected activities.” The LAPD’s practice is unconstitutional, NYU Law School Institute said.
Facebook has warned police departments before against impersonating users and creating fake accounts. In 2018, it called out the Memphis Police Department for creating a fictitious “Bob Smith” account to keep tabs on Black Lives Matter protestors.
Whistleblower Frances Haugen recently shared an internal memo that led to an investigation by Congress on whether Facebook knowingly allowed hate and misinformation to thrive on the platform for profit. The company has since changed its name to “Meta” in an apparent PR exercise.
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