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  • Johana Bhuiyan and Sam Levin

Facebook demands LAPD end social media surveillance and use of fake accounts

Company’s letter to LA police chief comes after the Guardian revealed that the department partnered with a tech firm that enables undercover spying

Los Angeles police officers in front of the LAPD headquarters in downtown Los Angeles during Covid protests. Photograph: Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times/Rex/Shutterstock

Facebook is demanding that the Los Angeles police department cease all use of “dummy” accounts on its platforms and stop collecting data on users for surveillance.

The letter, addressed to the LAPD chief, Michel Moore, on Thursday, comes after the Guardian contacted Facebook about two stories that revealed the department partnered in 2019 with Voyager Labs, a tech company that claims it can predict “emerging threats” and solve crime by analyzing social media information such as a person’s friends, posts and usernames. Read moreDocuments obtained by the Brennan Center and reviewed by the Guardian show that in addition to enabling law enforcement clients to collect and analyze user data from companies like Facebook, Voyager software also enables its law enforcement clients to use fake accounts to access otherwise inaccessible and private user information.

Facebook says both these uses are violations of its policies. The LAPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment. “It has also come to our attention that the LAPD has used a third-party vendor to collect data on our platforms regarding our users,” the letter reads. “Under our policies, developers are prohibited from using data obtained on our platforms for surveillance, including the processing of platform data about people, groups, or events for law enforcement or national security purposes.”

It’s unclear if the LAPD used the fake profile feature while working with Voyager. Emails show an LAPD technology official said the feature that allows police to “log in with fake accounts that are already friended with the target subject” was a “great function”, but suggested that the department was not heading in the direction of using that service. Documents also suggest that some LAPD staffers who were testing Voyager’s services had requested the “active persona” feature for Facebook, Instagram and Telegram, appearing to refer to the fake account function.

In a September 2019 email, an LAPD official in the robbery and homicide division told Voyager that the fake profile service was a “need-to-have” feature.

The documents the Brennan Center obtained through public records requests included an LAPD video that instructed officers on how to preserve Facebook and Instagram accounts and recommended officers use fake profiles to do so. “Remember, don’t use your personal account as you may pop up on the suspect’s feed as friends you may know,” the detective in the video said. “Make sure to set up a dummy account. It’s easy to set up a dummy account and if you need help you can always refer to your local area detectives.”

LAPD has policies for “online undercover activity” that establish some restrictions for this tactic, including requiring special approval from a supervisor if police are using a fake account to communicate with someone, but there is less oversight if an account is created to examine “trends” or for “conducting research”. The policies say that “the use of a fictitious online persona to engage in investigative activity” is not subject to an approval by the police commission, an oversight board that grants approval for other kinds of undercover operations.

The records show that the LAPD has had conversations this year about a continued partnership with Voyager, but a police spokesperson told the Guardian on Monday that the department was not currently using the software.

In its letter, Facebook reiterated using fake accounts was a violation of their policies and said the LAPD should “cease all activities on Facebook that involve the use of fake accounts, impersonation of others, and collection of data for surveillance purposes.”

“People on our platforms speak their minds, connect with others to promote common causes, share their personal experiences, and organize first amendment protected activities,” the letter, signed by the company’s the vice-president and deputy general counsel of civil rights, Roy L Austin Jr, read. “It is our intention that they do so in a space that is free from unlawful surveillance by the government or agents acting in inauthentic ways.”

This is at least the second time that Facebook has had to demand a police department cease its use of fake social media profiles as part of its investigations. In 2018 Facebook deactivated accounts used by police in Memphis, Tennessee, under fake names. One account, under the name Bob Smith, was used to befriend and gather information on activists. At the time, Facebook told the police department it needed to “cease all activities on Facebook that involve the use of fake accounts or impersonation of others”.

“There’s no excuse for LAPD not to have known this,” said Rachel Levinson-Waldman, a deputy director at the Brennan Center, adding that she hoped Facebook’s letter to the LAPD would serve as a warning to other police departments and software companies that law enforcement cannot conduct surveillance or undercover operations on Facebook’s platforms.

“This is really important to help ensure the protection of activists for racial justice and social justice,” she said, noting that these kinds of social media surveillance programs disproportionately affect organizers of color. “These are basic civil rights protections of not having police officers or detectives infiltrate groups undercover online in a way that can be really hard to unearth.”

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