The Justice Department has reached a $ 134,000 settlement with a woman whose personal images were used by the Drug Enforcement Administration to create a Facebook profile made with “hopes of tricking her friends and associates into revealing incriminating drug secrets.”
DEA officials gained access to the woman’s photos, some of which featured her wearing nothing more than her underwear, after she provided them with access to her smartphone in 2010. The government has argued that she gave “implicit permission” for her photos and personal data to be used to aid “ongoing investigations” when she first gave DEA officials access to the device.
But it’s unlikely that she knew DEA officials would create a Facebook profile featuring her real name, images of her with her son, and other identifying information when she allowed them to search her smartphone. (She didn’t learn about the fake profile until a friend asked her about some of the images it displayed; the woman didn’t have her own Facebook profile at the time.)
Support for the woman’s plight came from the unlikeliest of places: Facebook’s own Terms of Service. The company said in a letter to the DEA that creating fake profiles, especially those using someone else’s images, is against its rules. It then deactivated the account created in this case and asked the DEA to confirm that similar accounts would also be removed from the site.
Facebook’s support followed controversies around the real-name policy it invoked to quash the DEA’s invasion of this woman’s privacy. The policy was criticized for preventing Facebook users from using names other than the ones they were assigned at birth — especially if those names were used by drag queens, who seemed to attract special scrutiny from Facebook’s employees.
Yet the problematic policy might remain the only defense against these images being taken from people’s smartphones. The Justice Department didn’t have to admit to any wrongdoing as part of this settlement, and the woman has agreed to drop her lawsuit against the government for using her information without her informed consent, which could allow the DEA or other agencies to use similar tactics in the future despite the backlash this particular case attracted.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]