A special agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration impersonated a woman by creating a fake Facebook profile and posting photos from her phone in an attempt to communicate with criminals. That woman, Sondra Arquiett, is now suing the agent and the federal government for at least $750,000.
Arquiett’s court filing, first discovered by BuzzFeed, and related legal documents describe her 2010 arrest following a joint investigation into local drug trafficking by the DEA and other agencies. Investigators seized her phone at the time of her arrest. Arquiett pled guilty to an “intent to distribute” drug charge and received five years of probation.
Soon after her arrest, however, Timothy Sinnigen—the DEA agent and defendant in the lawsuit—set up a fake Facebook profile page using Arquiett’s name and photos taken from her seized cellphone in an apparent attempt to communicate with other members of the alleged drug ring. In her complaint, Arquiett claims the agent used this data from her phone without her knowledge or consent.
In response, the Justice Department claims that Sinnigen set up and used the fake Facebook profile for a “legitimate law enforcement purpose,” though without specifying what that legitimate purpose was. The department denies any wrongdoing. Sinnigen sent and received friend requests while impersonating Arquiett, including one to a wanted fugitive who was evading arrest.
The agency says that while Arquiett did not give explicit consent for the photos to be used on an account impersonating her, she granted access to the information stored in her device to aid in ongoing criminal investigations.
Arguiett charges in her complaint that some of the photos used were “revealing and suggestive,” such as one of her in her bra and panties. Sinnigen also posted photos of Arquiett’s young son and niece. Arquiett claims she didn’t know about the page until a friend showed it to her, since no one ever told her that a federal agent might post her personal photos and other information on a public Facebook profile under her name. She says she suffered “fear and great emotional distress” as a result.
The Justice Department’s response goes on to argue that:
- Plaintiff does not have a First Amendment Right to Privacy in the photographs contained on her cell phone.
- Plaintiff relinquished any expectation of privacy she may have had to the photographs contained on her cell phone.
- Plaintiff consented to the search of her cell phone.
- Plaintiff consented to use of information contained on her cell phone in ongoing criminal investigations.
- Plaintiff cannot establish a violation of her substantive due process rights because she has not, and cannot, allege that Defendant Sinnigen’s alleged actions were taken with the absence of a legitimate governmental interest.
A number of law and privacy experts told BuzzFeed the government’s actions are hugely problematic, and that consenting to use the contents of a device does not grant permission to steal someone’s identity.
Whether or not the Justice Department has a legal right to impersonate Arquiett, Sinnigen’s actions appear to have violated Facebook’s terms of service, which state that, “Pretending to be anything or anyone isn’t allowed.” The fake-Arquiett Facebook page has also apparently vanished from the site.
Lead image by Ryan Lackey