Here’s How Law Enforcement Agencies Impersonate Your Friends

We recently received a handbook from the DEA, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, seeking information about the use of impersonation as an investigative technique. While the 1999 handbook, titled Online Investigative Principles for Federal Law Enforcement Agents, was almost identical to a version of the handbook that is available online, there is one notable difference: the version that the DEA sent us includes a copy of the DEA’s Consent to Assume Online Identity: Adult Consent form.

The DEA apparently used this fifteen-year-old form to obtain consent from individuals to impersonate their online identities. It states: “I ____ hereby voluntarily provide consent to the Drug Enforcement Administration or other Federal, State or Local Task Force officers to assume my Internet online identity. My Internet screen name(s), nick name(s), and/or e-mail addresses are as follows.” It goes on to state:

I understand that these law enforcement officers will changes [sic] the password(s) to this account so that I will no longer have access to these accounts. My Internet online identity may be used by these law enforcement officers for any official purpose relating to an official investigation, including sending and receiving e-mail, making direct communications on systems such as ICQ or AOL instant messaging, and any other electronic communications. I have been advised of my right to refuse to allow the assumption of my identity. I give this consent freely and voluntarily.

We filed this FOIA request because the impersonation of actual individuals and organizations by law enforcement agencies has the unique ability to erode our trust in each other’s identities. If government agencies impersonate Senate staffers, Internet repair technicians, newspapers, and individual citizens at will — as they appear to have done in the past — or others in our lives, it will erode a form of trust that is critical for relationships in a free society: our ability to trust stated identities.

Unfortunately, the documents released to us so far raise more questions than they answer. This consent form in particular raises some thorny ones, including:

  1. Under what circumstances can law enforcement agencies ask for consent to impersonate actual individuals?
  2. If the individual does not consent, can law enforcement get a warrant to impersonate someone?
  3. Once a law enforcement agency is impersonating someone, what is it allowed to do? Can it communicate with the individuals’ Facebook friends? Can it respond to emails from their family members?
  4. What factors do law-enforcement agencies consider in deciding whether the extraordinary risks of impersonation are worth the possible reward?

Without this information, it is difficult to assess the lawfulness or wisdom of the DEA’s impersonation of actual individuals — a practice which raises serious constitutional questions. The Fourth Amendment prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures,” and while courts have generally approved of the government’s use of deception (for example, undercover officers), few have ruled upon the constitutionality of the impersonation of actual individuals.

A recent decision in a Las Vegas District Court involved evidence collected by members of the FBI who impersonated Internet repair technicians to gain physical access to suspects’ hotel rooms. During their investigation of an online gambling ring, FBI agents disconnected the Internet in three rooms of a Las Vegas hotel and impersonated technicians to enter the rooms without suspicion and to collect evidence later used against the suspects in court. The judge eventually tossed the evidence out on the grounds that it was “fruit of a poisonous tree” — legal jargon indicating that the evidence was obtained using an unlawful search.

In another case, the DEA created a fake Facebook profile for a real individual, Sondra Prince, who was arrested on drug charges in 2010, in order to investigate an alleged New York drug ring. The DEA agent who arrested Prince seized her cell phone and mined it for photographs. These were then used to create the fraudulent Facebook profile which was used by the agents as a critical part of their investigation into the drug ring. These photographs notably included ones of Prince in a bathing suit, and photos of her two young children. Prince ultimately sued the DEA over its impersonation of her profile. The Justice Department eventually paid $134,000 to settle the case, which drew the public’s attention to potential privacy violations at play in government agencies’ impersonation of individuals (not to mention the potential dangers involved).

The consent form also raises tricky questions about the scope of consent. Does the form allow the agents, for example, to answer incoming messages from the mother of the consenter? What about a romantic partner or close friends? The form does nothing to clarify these questions. Nor does it address the fact that asking people to turn over their passwords so that law enforcement can then log in to their accounts violates the terms of service of Facebook and a number of other major service providers, which all prohibit password sharing. The government itself has argued in other cases that such password sharing may be a crime under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Finally, the date of the form — 1999 — raises an obvious but unanswered question: what is the DEA’s current practice? Technology and social media have transformed our society in the last sixteen years. Have the DEA’s practices changed since then? Do they impersonate individuals routinely now? What are the rules that now govern that impersonation? We just don’t know, and that’s a problem. 

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Victoria Alexan...

This is disgusting and the permission a total sleight of hand given the length of the terms and conditions.

Legend

Apparently, the East German Stasi was just leading the way in the race to the law enforcement bottom. United States agencies, meant for law enforcement, now have the ability to legally remotely hack your computer as well. Coupled with this ability to impersonate your friends, a message from a trusted friend could be from a government agent, and a reply from you- who is actually someone intercepting your message traffic as an agent of the government- could be used to actually construct a pattern of illegality. This would be impossible to detect, and indefensible in court. So the United States has now won the race to the legal bottom, whilst Congress and the Senate console Joe Biden over losing his son. Which appears to be more important than proper governance of our nation. Have you seen the news?

Anonymous

Zersetsen/CointelPro tactics are routinely used against citizens of this country.
unwittingvictim.com
mindjustice.org

Wzrd1

They're welcome to impersonate my friends, most of them are dead.

Jay

This is eerily close to how the Stasi operated and their methodology. Except way more advanced due to technological advances. Which is scary as hell.

Anonymous sk

i believe i am being victimized in multiple ways. new technology used now messes with ones mind, mental warfare and the tactics are disgusting. they use frequency tools and many other means...its truely sickening and the aclu needs to help and laws need to be passed to protect the people. this is not right.....i will not give up the fight but this has gone on long enough....and my mind deserves peace and to be protected from these domestic terrorists. this story gets very deep with many accounts....morgan n morgan for the people...we will be heard one day....its sad im afraid to truely ask for help bc its sooo wrong and so crazy but its soooo true....to tell this story one is afraid to be labeled a nut when in fact it is reality.....

Anonymous

Contact Me

704 649 4707

Either deal with this for the rest of your life, or do what you can. My plan involves me getting as many others dealing with this same torture on the same page, that must happen before a MASS approach to the ACLU.

Byron Crite

Anonymous

I am frequently followed by city and state officials, during commutes. Today I decided to partake in an event and was harassed by Nevada highway patrol, followed for several miles. Once I'm in another city I'm noticing the county sheriff of mineral county who posed as having being engaged in a traffic stop, all most instantly makes a u turn and proceeds in the direction I'm headed, I notice this and signaled to turn and he became displaced, maneuvering his vehicle in the highway as tho he could not figure which way he should go.
He immediately made the u turn heading towards me to the parking lot behind me to speak with a patron who I can only assume this is also a officer in an unmarked vehicle.
I have witness this from the time I left this venue, noting that the vehicle prior to this event on a piece of paper.
With the current events, I fear I'm the next victim of police violence.
I would like to prove my statement by inviting someone to ride along with me from state to state. This has been occurring for over three years, I wish to expose and exercise my right to move about freely without profiling and harassment from the agencies sworn to protect me. What they think needs to be placed in the light. Who monitors them and their wrong doings?

Anonymous

You're just paranoid. Nobody has time for that.

Anonymous

I believe you it goes on all the time. I have been terrorized as well they have broken into my home,tracking devices on my vehicle, anything illegal they could do,they have done. I got smart though I installed cameras I now have proof. The cops here sell drugs an follow unsuspecting victims an charge them with drug charges. I am currently working diligently working to expose them,an yes they have the time to carry out all these illegal activities.

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