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Feds use phony MySpace profiles to nab bad guys

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Undercover US agents are infiltrating MySpace, Facebook, and other social networking sites with false online profiles in an attempt to nab users under investigation for breaking the law, a Justice Department document reveals.

The revelation exposes the Kafkaesque double standard employed by federal prosecutors, who in 2008 charged a Missouri mother with four felonies for creating a fake MySpace account. The woman, Lori Drew, helped create the profile of a fictitious teenage boy and then sent flirtatious messages to a 13-year-old girl under his name. The girl later hanged herself after receiving a message from the account saying the world would be a better place without her.

A Los Angeles jury eventually convicted Drew of three misdemeanors. The verdict was later overturned by a judge on grounds the underlying law was vague, but the action was taken against the wishes of the prosecutors trying the case.

Alas, there are no stated prohibitions against federal agents setting up fictitious accounts, even though they violate terms of service for both Facebook and MySpace. According to a 33-page document (pdf) obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, such undercover operations can be useful for a variety of purposes, including communicating with suspects or targets, gaining access to non-public information, and mapping social relationships and networks.

The Justice Department memo notes the potential problems with such covert operations with the words: "If agents violate terms of service, is that 'otherwise illegal activity'?" The question, a reference to language in MySpace terms of service, is never answered.

Social networks can prove to be a gold mine because they act as diaries, except that they are available online and potentially indestructible. User information and stored files on MySpace are kept "indefinitely," the memo states. The Associated Press has much more here. ®

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