Think of Paul Blart, Mall Cop going undercover and online.
In Bloomington, Minnesota is a small city dedicated to capitalism. It’s the Mall of America, with more than 500 stores and 2.5 million square feet of retail space.
It has a Nickelodeon themed theme park; an underwater adventures aquarium, a wedding chapel, a flight simulator, a ropes course, and the home plate from the old Metropolitan Stadium, where the Twins and Vikings used to play (just outside the SpongeBob SquarePants Rock Bottom Plunge.)
It is, according to their slogan, “‘The place for fun in your life.” It has theater, culture and is, for all intents and purposes, a city.
Except in the eyes of the law. To the law, a shopping mall is private property. Which means that they (not sure exactly who “they” are, but assume it’s the shopping mall owners) can refuse you entry, kick you out, and otherwise discriminate against you, as long as they don’t violate the civil rights laws.
They can also allow the Knights of Columbus to protest against communism or Sharia law, but refuse to allow antiwar protesters or “Black Lives Matter” protesters to even enter the mall.
Now the fight over free speech moves online.
When Black Lives Matter protesters set up shop at the Mall of America, and organized a protest at the mall, they were met not with mall police, but City of Bloomington Police.
The organizers were arrested and prosecuted not for being disorderly or disruptive, not for preventing access or egress from the mall, but rather for trespass. Because the mall owners did not like the content of their speech, they kicked them out. When the protesters refused to leave, they were arrested.
In targeting whom to arrest, the Bloomington prosecutor did not rely on what people did in the mall. Rather, she focused on social networks. The Bloomington City Attorney noted that she was focusing the prosecutions on “The main perpetrators [who] are those who continued on their Facebook site to invite people illegally to the Mall of America.” Really? It’s illegal to invite people to the Mall of America? Really?
So during this time, while the city attorney is reading people’s Facebook pages, a woman name Nikki Larsen, a sales associate at Hollister Company (and former McDonalds employee) creates a Facebook page.
Her page includes a quote from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King (“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”) Nikki quickly “liked” several of the Ferguson protest groups, including the Minnesota chapter of Black Lives Matter, as well as groups like the American Indian Movement Interpretive Center, Occupy Minneapolis, SumOfUs, the SEIU Minnesota State Council, and Communities United Against Police Brutality, among others.
Nikki also friended many of the members of these groups, and as a “friend” had access to members names, photographs, and personal information.
There appears to be just a teensy problem with Nikki Larsen. She doesn’t exist.
According to a report by The Intercept, Nikki was the doppelganger of Sam Root, the head of “Intelligence” for the Mall of America. This is a mall police that created its own anti-terrorism group Risk Assessment and Mitigation (RAM.) The picture used to represent Nikki was identical to a picture of one of the people listed as a Facebook “friend” of Root’s.
Now Facebook’s Terms of Service are pretty explicit about this. They state:
Facebook users provide their real names and information, and we need your help to keep it that way. Here are some commitments you make to us relating to registering and maintaining the security of your account:
You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook, or create an account for anyone other than yourself without permission.
You will not create more than one personal account.
If we disable your account, you will not create another one without our permission.
You will not use your personal timeline primarily for your own commercial gain, and will use a Facebook Page for such purposes.
You will keep your contact information accurate and up-to-date.
IF Root actually created the Larsen page, then he violated these Terms of Service. He may also have violated the Federal Computer Crime law by “exceeding the scope” of his authorization to “access” Facebook’s computers.
In a controversial case several years ago, the Justice Department prosecuted a woman who violated MySpace’s terms of service by creating a fictitious account in the name of a teenager in order to spy on her daughter’s friend. .
But what’s on Facebook is public – or at least partly so.
This case represents a trend of employers, schools, government agencies and others to use social networking sites to investigate individuals or groups.
While they mainly search “public” materials on these sites, apart from terms of service, there is little to prevent for example, a college admissions office from creating a fake profile for a hot girl (or guy) and “friending” a few thousand High School seniors to get information they can use to decide who is a good candidate for admission. A potential employer can ‘friend” prospects under false pretenses, and figure out if the prospect is right for them.
It is reminiscent of the 1960’s COINTELPRO programs where the FBI and other law enforcement agencies infiltrated antiwar and other groups engaged in free speech activities, and in many cases actually instigated criminal activity. My bad.
But now, it’s outsourced to the private sector. The Bloomington MN Police Department need no dirty their hands with creating false social networking sites – let Paul Blart do that for them.
Mall of America protesters have filed lawsuits, and arrests made of Black Lives Matter protesters. The Internet is just another battleground for free speech rights. Next, we can expect mall cops going undercover as SpongeBob’s sidekick Patrick Star to catch kids taking more than a penny from the “take a penny” dish. And using social media to do so.