US Authorities Used Woman's Private Photos to Catfish Dealers on Facebook

By Kate Knibbs on at

In case snooping wasn't enough, the US government is also neck-deep in creepy digital impersonation schemes. The Justice Department has agreed to pay a woman $134,000 (£84k) for stealing her personal information to set up a fake Facebook profile in her name so that agents could catfish drug dealers.
Back in 2010, Sondra Arquiett went by the name Sondra Prince. She did not have a Facebook profile, which is why she found it bizarre when a friend asked her about photos she'd been posting, including images of Arquiett spread-legged on a BMW and posing in her underwear.

Those photos were of Arquiett, but she hadn't posted them. Nor had she friend-requested a wanted fugitive. It was the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

After her phone was confiscated when she was arrested, a DEA agent named Timothy Sinnigen used the photos on her phone, including images of Arquiett in her skivvies and Arquiett with her son and niece, to create a profile page in her name so he could contact people he suspected of being involved with drugs. Arquiett was arrested for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, so it looks like Sinnigen wanted in on those narcotic connections.

Arquiett was not OK with the drug agency impersonating her without her permission, so she sued. Facebook also went after the DEA, writing a letter to emphasise that identity theft violates the company's terms and services, even if it's identity theft by government agency. Sinnigan was able to operate the account for at least three months until Facebook removed the account for violating community standards.

This is not the only high-profile case where people are pissed off at the DEA for legally dubious impersonations:

In the wake of disclosures about the fake Facebook page, criminal defendants in an Internet gambling case in Las Vegas accused FBI agents of posing as computer technicians to surreptitiously gain access to multiple luxury high-roller suits where the gamblers were accused of running an illegal online sports betting ring.

The group of Asian gamblers accused government agents of intentionally shutting off Internet service to the rooms so they could pose as repairmen and enter the suits to gather evidence.

Under U.S. law, a person whose property is inspected generally must waive his constitutional protections against unreasonable searches unless authorities obtain a warrant. Evidence collected improperly is not supposed to be used at trial.

The Justice Department still hasn't admitted to any wrongdoing, and since Arquiett took the settlement, the lawsuit will be dismissed. But unless the DEA is willing to shell out hundreds of thousands every time they want to nick someone's private photos and impersonate them on social media, this settlement could be a deterrent for future government catfish operations.

[AP]