With the Police using fake online accounts to track crims, is it morally acceptable? And can we avoid another Jenny Leong incident?
Reports that American police officers have been using fake Facebook profiles to track activists, whistleblowers and suspected criminals have raised privacy concerns closer to home.
According to Tec.Mic, police departments across the United States are using false Facebook accounts, and monitoring Twitter and Instagram, to gather information about a wide range of “persons of interest”. The intelligence is compiled using predictive analytical policing software, which is then used to inform police about undesirable activity. If people publish “high risk” comments, police are alerted and can further investigate, or send extra units to patrol their neighbourhoods.
A 2012 survey, conducted by LexisNexis Risk Solutions, gives some insight into the functioning of these operations. One police officer responded to the survey by saying that he had been “looking for a suspect related to drug charges for over a month. When I looked him up on Facebook and requested him as a friend from a fictitious profile, he accepted,” and “he kept ‘checking in’ everywhere he went, so I was able to track him down very easily.”
Another respondent wrote, “Social media is a valuable tool because you are able to see the activities of a target in his comfortable stage. Targets brag and post … information in reference to travel, hobbies, places visited, appointments, circle of friends, family members, relationships, actions, etc.”
Civil liberties groups have raised concerns that the practice violates the personal privacy of individuals – and can act as a doorway for prejudicial police profiling. Rachel Levinson-Waldman, Senior Counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice public policy institute, told Tec.Mic, “Even if it is all ‘gang-related,’ what does it mean to feed in information that says, ‘We know that Person A is a member of a gang, and they exchange tweets with person B?’ Are we going to put Person B under surveillance or keep an eye on them?” To her, the question is, “To what extent is there oversight of how that circle of surveillance grows?”.
Ladar Levinson, the former-owner of the encrypted email service Lavabit, spoke about the need for digital privacy in the film citizenfour:
“I believe in the rule of law, I believe in the need to conduct investigations. But those investigations are supposed to be difficult for a reason. It’s supposed to be difficult to invade somebody’s privacy. Because of how intrusive it is… If we don’t have our right to privacy, how do we have a free and open discussion?”
Closer to home
A recent investigation that caught New South Wales police officers using Facebook to troll Newtown MP Jenny Leong has raised questions about the extent of online policing in New South Wales.
If the police suspect on reasonable ground that you are committing a crime, they can apply for a warrant to search your social networking accounts for evidence. Under New South Wales law, police can also apply for “covert” search warrants, which allow them to search your things without your knowledge – this includes online accounts such as Facebook.
In October last year, police arrested a teenager over a series of inflammatory online posts thought to be supporting Parramatta shooter Farhad Khalil Mohammad Jabar. One post included a photo of himself with the comment: “No justice, no peace, f–k the police.” Several other posts had an anti-police sentiment. Fellow students told the Sydney Morning Herald that the teen was a troublemaker who argued with police but was not connected with Jabar.
And earlier last year, police used social media to arrest another two students on assault charges, following a video they uploaded to YouTube. The video allegedly shows the pair beating up a third student, and was viewed 53,000 times before being removed from the site. The video was later used as evidence to identify the assailants.
According to LegalAid NSW: “It’s becoming more common for people to post information on Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites that links them to crimes without realising that the posts can be used against them.”
In another case, Sydney man Zane Alchin was charged with “using a carriage service to menace, harass or offend” and forced to appear in Newtown Court following a series of offensive comments posted on Facebook about a woman’s Tinder profile.
Online policing has also become a concern in activist circles, which are growing increasingly paranoid about fake police profiles being used to spy on them. Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to one activist involved in Sydney’s illegal-rave circuit, who claimed to receive several requests a week from devious profiles:
“I think the police are actively seeking to spy on activists for the purpose of criminalising them. They want to see if anything in their personal life can be used against their character… There was a thread last week where like 40 peeps from the activist community were about it.”
However, it is difficult to confirm whether these accounts belong to police, as online scammers also use fake profiles to infiltrate people’s social networks.
Spotting fake users on Facebook
The Free Thought Project provides a few tips on spotting a fake account which may be linked to police:
- Be suspicious if the account was made recently (ie. 2015, 2016)
- Be suspicious if the account was made earlier, but has little-or-no history published for earlier years
- Be suspicious if the profile has only one or no real profile photos of the person, or 7-10 photos posted on the same day.
- Be suspicious if the user has very few friends in common and or friends in general.
- Be suspicious if there is little to no interaction on their page with friends, no comments, likes or responses over their long time line.
- When in doubt use reverse image search. Take their image and see if it is a real person or not.
- If you’re still in doubt: deny, deny, deny.
To be on the safe side, it’s best not to post anything you would not want law enforcement to view, and don’t accept friend requests from people you don’t know.