The Justice Department is claiming, in a little-noticed court filing, that a federal agent had the right to impersonate a young woman online by creating a Facebook page in her name without her knowledge. Government lawyers also are defending the agent’s right to scour the woman’s seized cell phone and to post photographs — including racy pictures of her and even one of her young son and niece — to the phony social media account, which the agent was using to communicate with suspected criminals.
The woman, Sondra Arquiett, who then went by the name Sondra Prince, first learned her identity had been commandeered in 2010 when a friend asked about the pictures she was posting on her Facebook page. There she was, for anyone with an account to see — posing on the hood of a BMW, legs spread, or, in another, wearing only skimpy attire. She was surprised; she hadn’t even set up a Facebook page.
The account was actually set up by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Timothy Sinnigen.
Not long before, law enforcement officers had arrested Arquiett, alleging she was part of a drug ring. A judge, weighing evidence that the single mom was a bit player who accepted responsibility, ultimately sentenced Arquiett to probation. But while she was awaiting trial, Sinnigen created the fake Facebook page using Arquiett’s real name, posted photos from her seized cell phone, and communicated with at least one wanted fugitive — all without her knowledge.
The DEA’s actions might never have come to light if Arquiett, now 28, hadn’t sued Sinnigen, accusing him in federal district court in Syracuse, New York, of violating her privacy and placing her in danger.
In a court filing, a U.S. attorney acknowledges that, unbeknownst to Arquiett, Sinnigen created the fake Facebook account, posed as her, posted photos, sent a friend request to a fugitive, accepted other friend requests, and used the account “for a legitimate law enforcement purpose.”
The government’s response lays out an argument justifying Sinnigen’s actions: “Defendants admit that Plaintiff did not give express permission for the use of photographs contained on her phone on an undercover Facebook page, but state the Plaintiff implicitly consented by granting access to the information stored in her cell phone and by consenting to the use of that information to aid in an ongoing criminal investigations [sic].”
The government’s court filing confirms that Sinnigen posted a photo of Arquiett “wearing either a two-piece bathing suit or a bra and underwear,” but denies “the characterization of the photograph as suggestive.”
An album called “Sosa,” her nickname, shows her in a strapless shirt and large hoop earrings or, in another, lying face-down on the hood of the BMW, legs kicked up behind her. “At least I still have this car!” reads a comment supposedly posted by her.
The DOJ also acknowledges that Sinnigen posted photos of Arquiett’s son and niece, who were then clearly young children.
Arquiett’s lawyer Kimberly Zimmer noted Sinnigen’s actions. “Ms. Arquiett never intended for any of the pictures on her phone to be displayed publicly, let alone on Facebook, which has more than 800 million active users,” she wrote in the motion addressing sentencing. “More disturbing than the fact that the DEA Agents posted a picture of her in her underwear and bra is the fact that the DEA agents posted a picture of her young son and young niece in connection with that Facebook account, which the DEA agents later claim was used for legitimate law enforcement purposes, that is, to have contact with individuals involved in narcotics distribution.”
On Monday, the bogus Facebook page was accessible to the public. But after this story was published, Facebook took down the page, telling BuzzFeed News, “We removed the profile because it violates our community standards.”
On Tuesday, less than 24 hours after BuzzFeed News published the story, the Justice Department’s top spokesperson, Brian Fallon said, “The incident at issue in this case is under review by Justice Department officials.”
Facebook has bluntly told the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to stop using phony accounts and posing as real people in its investigations.
In a blistering letter, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy called on Attorney General Eric Holder to condemn federal law enforcement agents’ impersonation of real people on Facebook.