Online dating sites and social media networks such as Facebook or Twitter are sometimes littered with fake profiles of attractive young women, tempting lonely Internet users. Representing themselves with photographs of someone else, such confidence artists trick unwary Internet users into divulging personal information or even financial information.
This kind of scam, nicknamed “catfishing” after the user name employed by a notorious scammer employing this method in 2010, has even become the focus of a popular reality-television show on MTV.
However, according to claims in a New York woman’s civil lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Justice, federal law enforcement agents used her images and life story to effectively steal her identity, crossing the line from cops to catfishers.
Feds Used Personal Info
New York resident Sondra Arquiette was arrested and convicted on charges of possessing illegal drugs in 2010. After an initial sentence of life in prison, her punishment was reduced to five years of probation, once prosecutors determined she had not been directly involved in a drug ring operated by her boyfriend, Jermaine Bradford.
Agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) confiscated her cellphone as evidence and allegedly set up a Facebook account impersonating her, using private photographs stored on the phone to populate the account. Allegedly, law enforcement agents used the ersatz Arquiette persona to pursue their investigation of other members of Bradford’s alleged drug ring, contacting suspects and pumping them for information.
After she discovered the bogus Facebook account—allegedly maintained by DEA Special Agent Timothy Sinnigen—Arquiette filed a legal complaint claiming the DEA’s impersonation violated her right to privacy and placed her in danger.
Arquiette’s complaint claims Sinnigen’s masquerade was with “dangerous individuals he was investigating,” who would have been under the impression they were really dealing with her.
The government’s response claims law enforcement agents reserve the right to impersonate citizens without their consent or knowledge. The DEA argues Arquiette “implicitly consented” to the theft of her online identity “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.”
‘Corrosive of Social Trust’
Legal scholars and privacy advocates took issue with the government’s argument, insisting a serious breach of civil liberties occurred if Arquiette’s allegations are true.
“This is the logic of civil asset forfeiture applied to identity—not the lawless seizure of a car or cash, or even just intimate photographs, but a citizen’s entire public persona,” said Julian Sanchez, a senior fellow of the Cato Institute.
“In an isolated case, that may just be a harm to the individual who loses control of her privacy and reputation. More worrying to me, though, is that if this were to become common practice, it could be utterly corrosive of social trust, which is a harm much more difficult to measure or remedy.”
Sanchez says such hamfisted tactics may impede the efforts of other law enforcement agencies in the future.
“Exploiting intimate bonds like that creates a general atmosphere of suspicion and distrust that is toxic and chilling, even to those who aren’t actually being informed on,” he said.
Arquiette’s lawsuit is currently under the supervision of the court’s mandatory mediation program, overseen by a neutral observer on whom both parties have agreed. If the DEA is unwilling to settle with Arquiette, a tentative court date has been scheduled for October 1, 2015.
Matt Naugle ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.
“Arquiette, v. United States of America, 7:13−CV−00752−TJM−TWD,” United States District Court, http://heartland.org/policy-documents/arquiette-v-united-states-america-713-cv-00752-tjm-twd