In the age of Russian bots pretending to be Black social media users to incite anger and division, it should come as no surprise that there are law enforcement agents masquerading online as Black people to keep tabs on members of the Black community. According to NBC News, one of those agents has been unmasked thanks to a lawsuit.
Bob Smith gained the trust of Black activists over three years by claiming to be a "fellow protester" and "man of color" before he was found to be a white undercover detective.
The Memphis Police Department’s Office of Homeland Security used Bob Smith to be the digital Black face of white officer Tim Reynolds to keep an eye on Black Lives Matter sympathizers.
Reynolds admitted to the charade during questioning under oath by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee as part of a lawsuit against the police department for allegedly violating a 1798 agreement which states police can't conduct surveillance of lawful protests.
Facebook may ban fake profiles, but since it isn't against the law, officers simply create new ones when they are caught by the social media giant.
“I’m skeptical that law enforcement is going to look at Facebook saying this and suddenly change their practices,” said Electronic Frontier Foundation investigative researcher Dave Maass.
Barry Friedman, director of the Policing Project at the New York University School of Law, isn't against undercover accounts as a whole, but he believes their purpose should be made public.
“They shouldn’t be doing it without a policy that explains what they’re doing and the purpose of it, or without a supervisor’s written authorization,” Friedman said.
An officer who runs a fake account in New Jersey said the accounts won't be going anywhere anytime soon.
“Every high-tech crime unit has one,” the officer said. “It’s not uncommon, but we don’t like to talk about it too much.”
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