Facebook orders LAPD to top using fake accounts to gather information on users, following report that found police worked with surveillance firm in 2019
Facebook has told the Los Angeles Police Department to stop using fake accounts, after it emerged the LAPD was working with a tech company to collect information on suspects from the social media platform.
In a letter to LAPD chief Michel Moore, Facebook said authorities are not permitted to use data gathered from the platform for “law enforcement or national security purposes”.
The company’s response came after the Guardian reported that the LAPD had worked with a company called Voyager Labs in 2019 to analyse user data and help solve crimes.
“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,” Facebook’s 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.”
The company said LAPD officers are required to abide by the platform’s rules when using it, and must stop all activities involving “the use of fake accounts, impersonation of others, and collection of data for surveillance purposes”.
The company said it wants to “create a safe environment”.
Documents obtained through public-record requests by non-profit the Brennan Center of Justice showed that the police department worked with Voyager Labs to collect data from suspects’ social media networks, including their friends’ accounts.
The LAPD said in emails the data had been useful in investigating street gangs and helping its robbery and homicide division to collect evidence.
The documents obtained by the Brennan Center included an LAPD instructional video that instructed officers on how to preserve Facebook and Instagram accounts, advising they use a fake profile to do so.
“It’s easy to set up a dummy account and if you need help you can always refer to your local area detectives,” the detective in the video says.
Officers must obtain permission from a supervisor if using a fake profile to communicate with someone, but there are fewer restrictions if such an account is used to examine general trends or to conduct research, the Guardian reported.
Facebook’s letter, signed by its vice-president and deputy general counsel of civil rights, Roy L Austin Jr, said people on the platform needed to be able to “speak their minds, connect with others to promote common causes, share their personal experiences” without “unlawful surveillance by the government or agents acting in inauthentic ways”.
In 2018 Facebook deactivated accounts used by the Memphis, Tennessee police under fake names, including one with the name Bob Smith used to gather information on activists.
Facebook has been accused of being selective in how it enforces its rules.
In October 2020, shortly before the US presidential election, the company was criticised for ordering New York University researchers to stop collecting data on how Facebook targets political ads.
In August the Federal Trade Commission said it was “disappointed” that Facebook had appeared to justify its actions by citing an FTC settlement, when in fact the FTC “supports efforts to shed light on opaque business practices”.