The Justice Department said Tuesday that it will review federal law enforcement practices in light of an incident in which a federal agent used a woman’s photographs and other personal information to create a fake Facebook account as part of a drug investigation.
The woman, Sondra Arquiett of Watertown, N.Y., alleges in a lawsuit that police seized photos and other information from her cellphone after she was arrested in 2010 on charges of possession with intent to distribute cocaine.
A judge sentenced Arquiett, who then went by the name Sondra Prince, to probation. While she was waiting to be sentenced, however, an agent from the Drug Enforcement Administration created a fake Facebook account in her name as a way to identify other suspects in an alleged drug ring, according to her complaint.
“The allegations in this case are shocking,” said Mariko Hirose, staff attorney for the New York Civil Liberties Union. “This case illustrates the importance of digital privacy and identity, and the possibility of abuse when law enforcement is able to access the trove of personal information that we store in our devices.”
The fake Facebook page had several photos of Arquiett, including one of her on the hood of a BMW and one showing her in a bra and underwear. The DEA agent, Timothy Sinnigen, also posted photographs of her son and a niece, both minors.
“Ms. Arquiett never intended for any of the pictures on her phone to be displayed publicly, let alone on Facebook, which has more than 800 million active users,” wrote Kimberly Zimmer, one of Arquiett’s attorneys. “More disturbing than the fact that the DEA Agents posted a picture of her in her underwear and bra is the fact that the DEA agents posted a picture of her young son and young niece in connection with that Facebook account, which the DEA agents later claim was used . . . to have contact with individuals involved in narcotics distribution.”
In court papers, U.S. Attorney Richard S. Hartunian acknowledged that Sinnigen created the fake page, posed as Arquiett and posted photographs from her phone. He also said that the agent used the account to send a “friend request” to a wanted fugitive.
But Hartunian defended the agent’s impersonation of Arquiett. He said that while Arquiett did not give express permission for the use of photographs contained on her phone for an undercover Facebook page, she “implicitly consented by granting access to the information stored in her cellphone and by consenting to the use of that information to aid in . . . ongoing criminal investigations.”
Details of the complaint, filed in the Northern District of New York, were first reported by the online news site BuzzFeed.
Law enforcement officials declined to say whether the incident involving Arquiett was isolated or ran counter to federal law enforcement policy. Justice Department spokesman Brian Fallon said officials would review the incident and the practice of creating fake online profiles.
A spokesman for Facebook declined to comment on the case but said that Arquiett’s fake profile has been removed from the site because it violates the company’s “community standards,” which include a provision that says that claiming to be another person or creating multiple accounts violates Facebook terms. The company asks Facebook users, including law enforcement officials, to use their authentic identities.
“On Facebook people connect using their real names and identities,” the policy says. “We ask that you refrain from publishing the personal information of others without their consent. Claiming to be another person, creating a false presence for an organization, or creating multiple accounts undermines community and violates Facebook’s terms.”
An attorney for Arquiett declined to comment. In her complaint, Arquiett said that she suffered “fear and great emotional distress” and was put in danger because Sinnigen’s Facebook page made some people think that she was willfully cooperating in Sinnigen’s drug investigation.
Sinnigen maintained the Facebook account for at least three months before Arquiett found out about it from a friend. Her civil suit against Sinnigen has been referred for mediation by a judge.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.