In 2010 a woman named Sondra Prince was a little confused when a friend asked about some of the pictures she’d uploaded to Facebook – she did not, to her knowledge, have a Facebook profile. The account had in fact been set up by DEA agent Timothy Sinnigen, according to an article in DailyMail.
Prior to setting up the fake profile, law enforcement officers had arrested Sondra, claiming that she was a part of a drug ring. She was ultimately sentenced to probation, but while awaiting trial, Sinnigen created the fake profile, uploading photos from Sondra’s seized cell phone, communicated with at least one wanted fugitive, all without Sondra’s knowledge.
The Justice Department headquarters, DEA office and US Attorney’s office all refused to answer questions until an article about the profile was posted on BuzzFeed news. After the article was published, a Justice Department official made a statement saying that the matter was being investigated.
The profile was active on Facebook until the BuzzFeed article was published. After the article came out, the profile was removed, as according to Facebook’s terms of service, nobody is allowed to set up a profile impersonating someone else, not even DEA agents.
A number of experts agree that all this creates a number of ethical questions. While it’s not uncommon for officers to pretend to be someone else when going undercover, that is an entirely different thing to impersonating someone without their consent. With all the technology and social media at our fingertips nowadays, there is the potential for a lot of misrepresentation or violations of privacy that the law hasn’t necessarily caught up with.
The actions of the DEA first came to light when Sondra filed a lawsuit against the official who had impersonated her for violating her privacy and impersonating her. The DEA acknowledged that they created the fake profile, but argued that the plaintiff had given them access to her cell phone and its contents and that the profile was created for official law enforcement purposes. Many experts say that the fake profile went above and beyond whatever a reasonable person would expect they had consented to, and that it is a violation of privacy, especially considering that many of the pictures uploaded were quite suggestive, and one included her young niece and nephew.
The justice department reached a $134,000 settlement with Sondra after creating the fake Facebook page, but did not admit wrongdoing.