DOJ Says It Was Okay For A DEA Agent To Impersonate A Woman On Facebook
A little-known Justice Department court filing explains that a federal agent had the right to impersonate a woman by setting up a fake Facebook account using her information and even posting provocative photos of her found on a seized phone.
According to a new report by BuzzFeed, an agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration commandeered the identity of Sondra Arquiett, who went by the name Sondra Prince at the time (2010).
How did she find out? BuzzFeed explains:
The woman, Sondra Arquiett, who then went by the name Sondra Prince, first learned her identity had been commandeered in 2010 when a friend asked about the pictures she was posting on her Facebook page. There she was, for anyone with an account to see — posing on the hood of a BMW, legs spread, or, in another, wearing only skimpy attire. She was surprised; she hadn’t even set up a Facebook page.
Sondra had previously been arrested on suspicion that she was part of a drug ring, and she was ultimately sentenced to probation. While she was awaiting trial, an agent by the name of Timothy Sinnigen created the fake account using photos from her seized phone.
Sinnigen did end up communicating with at least one known fugitive. But at what cost?
Sondra has been trying to sue Sinnigen, claiming that her privacy was violated by his actions. The court ruled that, even though the Facebook page was created without her consent, it was “for a legitimate law enforcement purpose.”
The government attempts to justify Sinnigen’s actions with the following statement:
Defendants admit that Plaintiff did not give express permission for the use of photographs contained on her phone on an undercover Facebook page, but state the Plaintiff 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 [sic].
Somehow, I doubt that’s the consent that Sondra intended to give.
“I may allow someone to come into my home and search,” said Anita L. Allen, a professor at University of Pennsylvania Law School, “but that doesn’t mean they can take the photos from my coffee table and post them online.”
The government’s court filing confirms that Sinnigen posted a photo of Sondra “wearing either a two-piece bathing suit or a bra and underwear,” but denies “the characterization of the photograph as suggestive.”
That particular photo was removed, but others remain live to this day.
One picture, posted to an album called “Sosa” (her nickname), shows Sondra lying face-down on the hood of a BMW with her legs kicked up behind her. “At least I still have this car!” says a comment posted under her name.
The government’s actions and statements in this case are problematic. The murky rules surrounding digital privacy and consent allow law enforcement officials to push their rights to extremes. Sure, Sondra wasn’t totally clean herself, but does that justify completely removing her right to digital privacy? I think not.