A “new” article on imposter Facebook accounts was published today in the Philippines. I put “new” in quotes because this is not a new issue, but I am glad that more public attention is being given to spoofed social media accounts.
I am referring to imposter accounts as “spoofed”, “faked”, and “imposter”, where the account was not created by the user. Conversely, there are fake accounts created by a user as a multiplier to voice misinformation/disinformation, but not used against a real person. The fake accounts of real people are a different matter.
How does this affect you, aka: TL/DR?
A fake account can affect your personally by:
- * Ruining your personal reputation,
- * Destroying family relations,
- * Getting you fired from your job,
- * Having criminal charges filed against you, and
- * Creating a risk of being sued.
On the professional side of using Facebook as part of OSINT investigations, you can be led on rabbit trails of false and misleading information whereby you put an innocent person at risk of all of the above bullet points, plus other devasting problems that I probably overlooked. Simply, if you find your suspect's account and use that information as a foundation of fact, you will be chasing an innocent person being framed with disinformation.
I wonder how many alibis have been successfully used with disinformation on social media platforms...
Today’s News is Old News but it is Relevant News for Today
In the Philippines article, students and journalists are the targeted victims with spoofed Facebook accounts created in their name and without any other information, such as personal photos. Fake accounts have been happening for years, so this is not new. However, it is just as relevant today as it was years ago. Perhaps more so now than ever before.
I am using “Facebook” throughout this post as Facebook is this article’s focus, but everything that I say about Facebook can be applied to almost any social media platform. Social media has been an amazingly positive force in the world for connecting people and sharing information, but just as any tool that has an incredible power to do good, the same tools have the power to do the exact opposite for bad.
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Found 3 fake Facebook accounts using my name last night. Already down (I think?) after I reported. One good thing about having a unique name is I’m sure the accounts are not owned by actual people with the same name as mine. <a href="https://t.co/7TBptLnofU">pic.twitter.com/7TBptLnofU</a></p>— Jodesz Gavilan (@jodeszgavilan) <a href="https://twitter.com/jodeszgavilan/status/1269466309000978433?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">June 7, 2020</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
With a standard disclaimer that I am not a lawyer, creating fake accounts probably isn’t a crime in most countries, because who cares if a fake account with no information on it was created. Certainly, fake accounts may violate the TOS (terms of service) of the platform provider and the accounts can be removed by the provider.
By the way, you can report a fake account to Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/help/1216349518398524?helpref=hc_global_nav
As far as criminal laws are concerned, the Internet doesn’t create a new world of criminal laws as the Internet only facilitates existing crimes electronically. The laws are basically the same, but have a sexier title like, "computer facilitated". Meaning, harassing someone online with racial or threatening comments is not different than doing the same thing at a workplace. Threats are threats. Identity theft is identity theft. The Internet just makes it easier, faster, and more explosive. Please don’t @ me with laws on Internet crime…I’m speaking extremely broadly on the legal aspect of fake accounts. I want to focus on the more important issues that affect you personally and affect your cases.
Technically, a fake account is just a fake account if it just sits there, right? I mean, I even checked my name in Facebook and found a fake account! No photo or any information, but it is there.. This is a fake Facebook page in my name (again, I did not create this).
In case you may be thinking that this could be a different “Brett Shavers” with a Facebook page, I highly doubt it. In fact, this fake page was created with me specifically named based on seeing (1) author under my name since I am an author, (2) Renton Police Department as a related page, which is where I was a detective in my former career, and (3) Amped Software- Forensic as a related page since I am somewhat involved in deeply involved in forensics.
There is also a notation (4) of “Unofficial Page”, which Facebook defines as a page that was not created by the named user. If I want, I can claim this page, or merge it, or ask that it be deleted. If I were to do this, I assume it would begin a game of whack-a-mole.
The interesting thing about me and Facebook is that I do have a personal Facebook page, but I don’t use it. Nothing is on it. I don’t like the concept of Facebook for many reasons. I created it in a futile attempt to prevent someone from creating a fake Facebook in my name. My effort was completely in vain. My real page looks like this (again, I did create this page).
How many fake accounts are out there?
This is one of the unknowns in life, as you can’t know the unknowable. However, Facebook has deleted BILLIONS of fake accounts. More specifically, Facebook has taken down over 5.4 BILLION fake accounts. Consider that the planet’s population is about 7.8 billion and that there were at least 5.4 billion known fake Facebook accounts. Still, this is not the most important issue to you as I move toward the juicy stuff!
The juicy stuff!
By now, I know that your brain has already gone through a dozen scenarios of how bad this situation with fake accounts sucks. I can’t think of a better word than “sucks”, because that is how this feels. To make sure that you covered the most important scenarios in your head, here are a few to think about if you missed one.
What can a fake Facebook account do against you?
- * Target you personally
- * Target your professional
- * Target your criminally
- * Target your civilly
These are easy to see. In this world of angry Internet users, any person can be the target of an army of one or an army of many through Internet attacks. A fake account can make you seem to be a far left/right political threat, a criminal peddling some form of criminal evidence (drugs, stolen property, etc..), or use your name/account to post threats to businesses, people, or to a government. None of these are good and all will require substantial resources to remedy, as in, prove your innocence. Also, the permanent effects of personal damage online is…permanent.
Criminals can (do) scope out targets and monitor their social media accounts. Creating a fake account in their target's name takes this one step and a million miles further. Imagine a fake Facebook account in your name that friends one of your friends. In minutes, your entire life’s connections can be mapped out with friends of friends and friends of those friends, and so forth. One fake account and you are completely exposed to an attacker. Before you are made aware, the account can be removed and you now your attacker has a complete dossier on you for their mission of destruction.
Not cool at all.
How can fake Facebook accounts affect your investigations (criminal or civil)?
- * Misleading information
- * Disinformation
For those who use OSINT (open source intelligence) as part of your job with either civil or criminal investigations, any criminal can create a fake account to throw you off their trail and on the trail of an innocent person. Imagine finding someone admit to a crime on Facebook, in their name, with their photo! That breaks the case! But if it was fake, you may or may not figure it out, and if not, an innocent person could end up charged and convicted of a crime that they did not commit.
Regardless if you can figure out if the account was faked, the effort involved to verify and corroborate the information wastes valuable time in any investigation. Your casework is affected nonetheless.
A bigger threat?
- * Facebook data collection
- * Government collection from third party Facebook
Facebook collects personal data. And it sells it to other businesses. And it gives it to governments. We expect that now. The surprise no longer exists that Facebook is a data collection machine that makes money off its users’ personal information. But that is not the issue, because if you don’t want to be part of that machine, you can avoid creating a personal account. Right?
Wrong. Facebook might make a personal page for you anyway without telling you anything about it. If they don’t make a personal and public page for you, they are certainly collecting your information anyway, even if you have never ever visited a www.Facebook.com website..ever.
Packet Storm wrote an amazingly important article in 2013 that describes basically your personal is collected by Facebook through friends and family on Facebook. Many in the security field are aware of this, where John Doe will post on his Facebook page about Jane Smith. Jane Smith might not have a Facebook page and is doing everything to avoid being online, but now her friend John just outed Jane to the Internet world.
Take this a step further. When John logs into the dozens of social media accounts through his mobile device or computer, he will usually give access to his contacts to the social media platform. Now, dozens of social media platforms have Jane’s contact information, even though Jane has no account on any of these platforms. Eventually, these contacts are collected by Facebook through the same manner of allowing access to the user’s contacts, and Facebook practically has the contact information of every person on the planet who has an email address or name.
Facebook has been questioned about “shadow” accounts or “invisible” accounts and claimed that the collection of this information was a technical glitch. This bug was, in effect, mapping the world regardless if everyone had a Facebook account.
The bigger threat, even more important than being targeted by criminals, is that of being wrongfully targeted by a government. Let’s take the Philippine’s situation as an example.
“This was first reported by U.P. Cebu’s official student publication Tugani, which said it found fake accounts of student activists who were arrested in an anti-terrorism bill protest on June 5.” - https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-06-07/philippines-probes-proliferation-of-impostor-facebook-accounts
It seems that students who were protesting and subsequently arrested, discovered fake Facebook accounts in their name. What would the purpose of that be, other than tracking people critical of their government? Over the course of human history, every group of people has had their turn of being critical of their government. Everyone takes their turn. Some nations allow public critiques without interference and other governments execute dissidents on the spot, in the street, for all to see.
3rd Party Access Trumps 4th Amendment protection
But the United States has the 4th Amendment! Come back with a warrant, bro! This is true, and generally, the Constitutional protections are followed by the US government (all levels). I say “generally” because there is always an instance of abuse that occurs inadvertently or intentionally.
Most people aren’t intimately aware of Constitutional Rights, and when asked, will usually recite something that they remember from a Hollywood movie or TV show. They don’t get it right often. Those “in the know” know that Facebook’s data is not protected by the Constitution. Your home and everything in it is protected from unreasonable search and seizure, but the data collected by Facebook (or any 3rd party) is not. That means knocking on Facebook’s door with a written request for data bypasses the wall between your data and the government.
The issue is when the data with your name on it is not your data but is tied to you. Or perhaps it is your data, collected and curated by Facebook that your entire life is memorialized in a neat zip file. Hopefully, the information collected was not disinformation by a competitor or criminal or scorned lover wanting to set you up for a fall.
All Existing Data is at Risk to be Breached
Social media platforms and any company that collects data are under varying degrees and sometimes opposing requirements of data preservation and data destruction. Some types of data is required to be maintained for a certain number of years and other data is mandated to be destroyed in a different number of years or months. Some providers swear to not keep any data.
The thing is, no one really knows how long data is kept or destroyed. Personally, I have written affidavits for data that should exist but told that it does not. I have also received data that should have been destroyed but was “overlooked”, resulting me getting extra information… On top of that, I have personally seen corporations not even know the data that they were maintaining that they certainly should have destroyed (legally) a decade earlier.
This data, all of it, including the fake accounts, are ripe for the taking by anyone with access to the data. Access does not only imply “legal” access, but any access to include hackers. It’s bad enough for your real data to be stolen, but it may be much worse if fake data is stolen and attributed to you.
What can you do?
Unfortunately, it is whack-a-mole with your private data and doubles with the fake accounts that might be attributed to you. At one point, I made a Keybase account, where you can verify the platforms and websites under your control. I verified everything in hopes that if a fake account was made (which there are a few for me…..), I could easily point to a verification site to disprove the fake news.
But, Keybase was purchased by Zoom, and with Zoom’s security problems, I deleted my keybase. The good news is that Keybase doesn’t allow me to recreate my account with my same name. That in itself is a good security feature for you. I recommend creating a keybase account and then delete it in order to prevent someone from creating a keybase account in your name. Of all fake accounts, Keybase would be a bad one to have made in your name as it professes to the world that you are you. Another example of platforms communicating (ie, sharing) data between each other is Zoom's iOS app sending data to Facebook as reported in Motherboard. The funny part? Even if you don't have a Facebook account, Zoom sends it to Facebook anyway. Add to this that Zoom purchased Keybase. Before you start spiraling out of control in conspiracy theories with social media platforms, keep in mind that I am only focusing on the fake Facebook accounts.
A personal story
Way back when, when I was a new patrol officer, my wife made a website. This was really incredible at the time. To give you a hint of when this was, it was during dialup, and websites were made by straight typing HTML. WYSIWYG wasn’t a thing yet, but she taught herself and made a site on one of the free platforms at the time. It was a family website and because I was in law enforcement, I stressed to not use our names or personally identifiable information, especially as our kids were young at the time. Anyway, her website became popular and made it into several print magazines in Japan. Oh yeah, the website was in Japanese. This will be important to know shortly.
The punchline is that one day in patrol, dispatch sent me a message on my MDC (mobile computer) and said something to the effect of, “Hey. I found a website with pictures of you and your family on it. Did you know that?”
Long before the Internet searching became really easy, a dispatcher somehow found me online with my family, on a website that was in Japanese. My wife took the site offline when I told her.
Later, in my undercover days, my threat level substantially increased. I flew around the country and internationally, many times unarmed (dumb in-country rules...), and hung out with organized crime. My conversations were talking to people about people that they killed or had killed, informants that were tortured, corrupt cops, smuggling humans across borders, and all things drugs and guns. I had cars drive slowly in front of my home, been followed on more occasions than I want to remember, and bumped into targets while off duty while with my family. During this time, I found that a relative of mine was posting pictures of me and my family online, even knowing the job that I was doing. I blame the ignorance of security more than anything, but to be unaware that photos you send to friends and family end up on their social media platforms is uncool without asking permission. Then at a point, I had threats and guns stuck in my belly added to the mix. Having a gun stuck in my belly and also my personal information exposed online, I can say that the Internet exposure was worse. Oh yeah, my ID was stolen with all of this too.
I have more of these types of stories than any one person should have, but the point is that the Internet is a dangerous place for not only those with intelligence or law enforcement jobs, but for any person who somehow gets in the crosshairs of an angry person, or someone who needs a scapegoat for their crimes. Fake social media accounts are a serious concern, and for you, the IT, Infosec, or DF/IR pro, your first responsibility is to protect your family. Protect the world as a secondary task as you get to it.
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