NYPD Creates Fake Facebook Profiles of Young Women to Spy on Suspected Gang Members
As the New York Times reported on Thursday, the NYPD has a new anti-gun violence strategy called Operation Crew Cut. One part of this strategy involves keeping tabs on suspected gang members' social media feeds, to try to spot any simmering tensions or vows of retaliation. That means following the young men on Twitter and Instagram.
Screengrab from the movie Catfish
Facebook, however, requires a bit more nuance.
In order to Facebook friend their targets, the Times noted, officers are "pretending to be young women to get around privacy settings that limit what can be seen."
It's a tactic pulled right from the playbooks of spambots and pervs: access the guy's page by pretending to be a hot female. Plays right into the ego. This random girl must've been digging my profile photo!
We've known for a couple of years now that the NYPD has been upping its social media spying game. In 2011, the department announced that it formed a new unit dedicated to just that.
Last September, police commissioner Ray Kelly wrote a memo okaying the creation of fake profiles. As the Daily News reported at the time, Kelly stated that "officers involved in probes involving social media may register their aliases with the department."
Facebook's legal terms state: "You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook, or create an account for anyone other than yourself without permission."
Which means that Facebook granted the NYPD permission or that the NYPD is violating Facebook's rules. The police department has not yet responded to our questions. (One other thing we're wondering: where do the officers get the profile pictures from? Hired models? Stock photos?)
Facebook declined to comment on the NYPD's policy, offering the Village Voice this statement instead:
We have nothing to share on this specific case. However, more generally on background it is a violation of our policies [see section 4: https://www.facebook.com/legal/terms] to use a fake name or operate under a false identity, and we encourage people to report anyone they think is doing this, either through the report links we provide on the site or through the contact forms in our Help Center.
The Times noted that a lot of folks like this strategy as an alternative to stop-and-frisk--it's far less physically intrusive on the community, honing in on targets from behind the scenes rather than on the block. No harm, no foul.
Like stop-and-frisk, though, the method is also based on encroaching upon the privacy rights of people who have not been charged with a crime. A 21-year-old named Cuame Nelson, who is affiliated with a neighborhood crew called the Hoodstarz, described the NYPD's social media tactic in similar terms as stop-and-frisk: "If you was born on this block, you would have been Hoodstarz. Whatever block you're from, that's just what you are. And because of that, we have no privacy," he told the Times.
As for its effectiveness--how many requests accepted vs. ignored?--for now that's between the NYPD and its computer servers. But, as Nelson suggested in the paper, the department is going after a generation of men well-versed in social media conventions. The undercover profiles may not always be as undercover as officers may think.
"I just could tell," Nelson said. "I don't know you. You don't know me. You're having a weird picture of some weirdo on a page you made yesterday with no friends except for my friends--but we don't know you?"
Send story tips to the author, Albert Samaha