Facebook asked to clamp down on cops creating fake accounts

Police officers are creating covert, fake accounts in order to spy on users during investigations.

Facebook's latest blunder: It stored hundreds of millions of passwords in plain text Facebook, Facebook Lite and Instagram passwords were stored in a 'readable format', with hundreds of millions of affected users expected to be notified.

Facebook has been urged to ramp up its efforts to prevent law enforcement from creating fake accounts in the name of surveillance.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) says that despite repeated warnings issued by Facebook which decree that law enforcement is required to use authentic identities on the social networking platform -- a rule also stipulated for the general public -- these demands are being ignored and the police are creating both fake and impersonator accounts en masse.

Social networks and the sharing of information, both public and personal, can be used by law enforcement to circumvent legal requirements such as the issuance of warrants in investigations. 

While it is up to us how much information we share, our contacts may also post or share data, unwittingly, which can be used in law enforcement activities.

One of the most recent accounts of such schemes was exposed by The Guardian earlier this month. US law enforcement officers under the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) umbrella were found to be breaking Facebook's rules.

ICE created a fake college, the "University of Farmington," in order to snare individuals in an immigration fraud scheme. Over 600 would-be 'students' were embroiled in the crackdown and 170 arrests were made.

The Memphis Police Department also made use of social media and fake profiles to monitor Black Lives Matter activists in 2018. The two-year investigation violated Memphis state laws related to spying on activists.

While Facebook has emphasized such practices are not acceptable and has removed offending accounts in known cases, the EFF also requested that the firm took on the San Francisco Police Department after it was found that officers were using fake accounts in criminal investigations. So far, Facebook has declined to do so.

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The non-profit privacy and civil rights outfit says that "much more needs to be done" to prevent social network abuse by those tasked with maintaining the law, and the organization has now called on Facebook to take a number of steps to bring the matter up to the higher echelons of the US government.

The first change called for is for Facebook to include data on the number of fake and impersonator accounts created by law enforcement, as well as which agencies they belong to and what actions were taken in light of such discoveries, in its transparency reports.

The second tweak of the rules suggested is for Facebook to take an active role in making sure anyone who has interacted with such accounts is made aware of their true purpose, whether this is by way of adverts, friend requests, comments, group membership, or Messenger interactions.

The EFF also suggests that Facebook considers "add[ing] a notification to the agency's page informing the public that the agency is known to have created fake/impersonator law enforcement accounts."

Furthermore, the EFF says that Facebook needs to amend its "Amended Terms for Federal, State and Local Governments in the United States" to more forcefully make clear that these kinds of activities are not acceptable, and when agencies have a policy in place which permits the use of fake accounts, a notice should be added to their page to make sure the public is aware.

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"We often only discover the existence of law enforcement fake profiles months, if not years, after an investigation has concluded," the EFF notes. "These changes are relatively light lifts that would enhance transparency and establish real consequences for agencies that deliberately violate the rules."

A Facebook spokesperson told The Guardian that "law enforcement authorities, like everyone else, are required to use their real names on Facebook and we make this policy clear on our public-facing Law Enforcement Guidelines page."

"Operating fake accounts is not allowed, and we swiftly act on any violating accounts," the spokesperson added.

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