Local, state, and federal law enforcement are refusing to comply with Facebook’s policy against law enforcement creating fake social media accounts.
A new report by The Guardian details how U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has violated Facebook policy by creating fake social media accounts connected to a fake university created to identify illegal immigrants. ICE agents created profiles of individuals alleged to have attended the fictional University of Farmington as part of their attempt to ensnare students in an immigration scam. More than 600 students, most of whom were Indian citizens, were indicted in the federal government’s operation.
The Guardian reports:
“Starting in 2015, undercover agents built the Michigan school’s facade, with a fake website, government documents that confirmed it was eligible to enroll foreign students and fake Facebook accounts, including supposed staff members. In a January indictment, the government accused students of enrolling in the school to stay in the country illegally, knowing that the institution was a sham.
In a network of suspicious Facebook accounts linked to the University of Farmington, the college’s alleged president, Ali “AJ” Milani, liked the Michigan Jaguars sports club and had a 51-person friend list that was mostly people from south Asia, despite Milani ostensibly living in Detroit. Carey Ferrante, who did not list any link to the school but had interactions with persons interested in it, posted three photos of herself that were actually stock photos, including one of a faceless woman in a bikini, and sent Facebook messages to at least one person.”
Edward Bajoka, an attorney representing eight of the individuals indicted, told The Guardian that it has been confirmed the U.S. government own the profiles of Ali “AJ” Milani and Carey Ferrante. Khaalid Walls, ICE’s North-East Regional Communications Director, declined to comment on the accounts but confirmed that 172 students had been arrested for civil immigration violations.
Meanwhile, a Facebook representative told The Guardian that law enforcement are subject to the same policies that require users to use their real name on Facebook. “Operating fake accounts is not allowed, and we will act on any violating accounts,” the representative said.
ICE has previously been exposed for creating another fake university, University of Northern New Jersey, in order to make arrests. This is also not the first time that law enforcement has been caught in the act of creating fake social media profiles in an attempt to catch potential criminals. Law enforcement in Ohio, New York, Georgia, and Nebraska have admitted to allowing investigators to use aliases and undercover profiles. In addition, the Memphis Police Department was previously caught using fake profiles to monitor Black Lives Matter activists.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has called on Facebook to improve their standards for dealing with U.S. law enforcement. “Facebook’s practice of taking down these individual accounts when they learn about them from the press (or from EFF) is insufficient to deter what we believe is a much larger iceberg beneath the surface,” EFF writes. “We often only discover the existence of law enforcement fake profiles months, if not years, after an investigation has concluded.”
EFF is calling for four specific changes to “enhance transparency and establish real consequences for agencies that deliberately violate the rules.” These changes include publishing data on the number of fake law enforcement accounts, including the agency they belong to and any action taken. EFF is also calling for Facebook to alert users and groups that have interacted with said fake accounts. Facebook should also amend its “Amended Terms for Federal, State and Local Governments in the United States” to make it clear that law enforcement are agreeing not to operate fake profiles on the platform.
Whether or not Facebook chooses to enact the EFF’s suggestions remains to be seen. However, it is already clear that law enforcement has no qualms about lying, breaking policies—or even the law—to achieve their goals. The American people should not depend on law enforcement to be an example of moral and ethical behavior. The only way these types of situations will end is for the people to stand up and push back against platforms like Facebook. Until that time social media users need to practice better security culture and be discerning when accepting new social media friends and accounts.