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In 2009 police officers created a fake Facebook profile under the name of Jenny Anderson, an “attractive young lady,” to investigate underage drinking at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. The catfish account drew enough curiosity to receive several friend request confirmations, granting access to student profiles and those of their extended friend circles.1 The subsequent discovery of incriminating posts led to eight student citations for underage drinking in what was perhaps the first sting operation carried out entirely from the comfort of a police officer’s desktop computer.

Social media platforms enable infiltration of networks once entirely opaque to traditional undercover investigation. By assuming false online personas, an officer’s location and identity are no longer of concern, while the financial cost and risk of physical confrontation are reduced to near-zero. Consequently, undercover digital policing is quickly becoming an attractive option for efficient, low-liability law enforcement. But as the growing presence of bulk data collection and digital warfare begin to erode privacy and undermine non-discriminatory ethics, the expansion of digital black operations stands to further complicate positioning these issues within principled, self-consistent network politics.

Digital black ops thus forces a peculiar fragmentation of the networked body so as to contort its web of digital relations and assume an unfamiliar pose.

Engaging in an undercover investigation, whether on- or offline, is an intimate act by its nature, requiring the impersonators’ utter commitment to their covert persona. For this reason, a double standard has persisted since its inception, whereby officers are expected to divorce themselves entirely from a processes by which they must also convincingly forge entirely new identities. But this affective entanglement, when transposed to online policing, produces an added strangeness deriving from digitization of the mind and body. The processes of creating an online identity begins with the dislocation of memory to the distributed corpora of online media and various social databases, and culminates in a biometric dissolution of physical presence: tracked calories, whereabouts, and music selections. Digital black ops thus forces a peculiar fragmentation of the networked body so as to contort its web of digital relations and assume an unfamiliar pose.

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La Sûreté

Before covert digital operations, infiltration required an exhaustive research process and on-the-ground cultural immersion in order to form relationships with targets and their constituents. Some of the earliest records of undercover policing are from 19th century Paris, involving the criminal Eugène François Vidocq who, upon being placed under arrest, offered his services as a police informant in exchange for an early release. After serving a reduced sentence, he worked for the french police masquerading as an escaped convict and used his extensive criminal network to aid with ongoing investigations.

Since Vidocq, familiarity has been the cornerstone of undercover operations and infiltration by way of trust is still the best means of gaining access to a network. For undercover investigations conducted on social networks, this is achieved by manufacturing a persona through the target’s affinity data and online history – an identity so finely tailored they appear familiar. Often familiar faces and other personal imagery are hijacked from the accounts of suspects and their acquaintances, or as testimony in the recent Sondra Price case revealed, taken taken off confiscated devices. Neither Vidocq, nor his successors, manufacture this sense of familiarity in isolation, rather undercover operations the use resources available.

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e-Volve Gadget Shoulder for iPhone or iPad Holster.

Second Life Policing

According to a Lexis Nexis2 report from 2012, approximately 80 percent of law enforcement agencies in the US use Facebook, Twitter, or another social network for investigation, either after a crime has occurred, or as a pre-crime monitoring tool. Introduced in December 2011, Facebook’s timeline feature is purpose-built for indexing biographical, location, and relationship changes, surpassing past and present by allowing access to the entire chronology of a person’s online activity. And by offering the ability to retroactively construct personal histories, Timeline is also ideal for fabricating the backbone of a new covert identity. Former CIA Director David Petraeus explained the agency’s need for such a tool as follows:

“Proud parents document the growth of their future CIA officer in all forms of social media that the world can access for decades to come […] we have to figure out how to create the digital footprint for new identities.”3

Beyond the considerable ease of creating covert personas, social media’s architecture allows catfish police officers to move freely among information within the target’s profile and those of their friend circle. The profile picture acts as a contemporary interrogation mirror, making today’s process of data collection significantly faster and more convenient. No need to respond immediately during conversation, no risk of losing face or making a gesture out of character. A rich personal dossier that once required a trusting relationship built over months or years can now be accomplished at will.4 A quote from the Justice Department’s tactical social media documentation puts it succinctly:

“I was looking for a suspect related to drug charges for over a month. When I looked him up on Facebook and requested him as a friend from a fictitious profile, he accepted. He kept ‘checking in’ everywhere he went, so I was able to track him down very easily.”5

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e-Volve GadgetWim Wenders, Paris, Texas, Final scene, 1984

Teenage Decoy Ninjas

Use of computers as a source of pleasure is crucial to effective digital policing, but the coupling also makes these systems prone to abuse. Whether NSA agents exploiting the surveillance apparatus to spy on loved ones,6 or military officers living out fantasies through combat training VR simulations, voyeuristic perversions of the military-entertainment complex are inherent to its means of control.

There is something oddly romantic in aspiring to be the most friend-able, follow-able person in the eyes of one’s coveted opponent. According to recent revelations in the UK, undercover police have started relationships and families during their lives undercover.7 Studying a target’s environment, social circle, and schedule, and then molding a persona in the hopes of being accepted into the fold is a deeply intimate activity. As the target, it must feel as if you have never found a match so fitting.

While online undercover operations afford the covert officer physical separation from their target they can also intensify emotional proximity. When digital black ops allows an officer to assume an identity far removed from their own physical appearance, any intimacy cultivated during an undercover investigation could also suggests the erotic tension of online role-play: a gender-bending covert identity could offer tantalizing escape for the rare officer with a patriarchal policing complex.

“We shouldn’t underestimate the erotic power of social media”

– Tiziana Terranova, Transmediale 2015

Assuming various genders and personas depending on case requirements, social media black ops leverage attraction and curiosity to entice targets into exchange. Yet simulating the mannerisms of the pretend-body by acting out their desire for acceptance establishes a power differential between the officer’s IRL authority and that of their submissive undercover persona. Catfishing in the name of the law thus disrupts the officer’s sense of self on numerous levels, as it incorporates a bizarre mix of desire, gender fluidity and a distorted perception of police authority.

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Facial Composite Program, FacesID

The Logistics of a Profile Picture

The premise of virtual reality platform Second Life is to allow deliberate construction of the digital body for use in online socializing. Offering total freedom over physical design, the ‘character creator’ subverts conventional bodily realities, while normalizing the production and modification of the body as the predominant source of identity formation and self expression. Anything from limbs, skins, faces and clothes can be purchased on the avatar marketplace and one can imagine law enforcement employing similar facial and biometric databases as avatar marketplaces to create false undercover identities.

From a webcam feed to the local supermarket’s CCTV,8 the digitised face can travel far removed from the physical body, traversing the network, coalescing with other metadata and imagery as a completely foreign identity and then stored away for later use. The potential for curation of customised identity profiles has never been so diverse or accessible. Quoting philosopher Jacques Rancière: “photography is an ingredient of a new political art of montage”.9

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Black Ops Sisterhood

Donning inverted skin colour bomber jackets and dog tag USB sticks replete with identity.zip files around their necks, the fictitious Black Ops Sisterhood is a future covert pre-crime unit conducting their daily patrol online under the guise of multiple carefully assembled digital cover identities. With proximity no longer of importance to their work, they quietly monitor from afar, receiving real-time notifications of their targets’ activities and whereabouts through their mobile devices.

Simone C. Niquille - Black Ops Sisterhood

Document Archive


  1. http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/police-officers-set-up-facebook-account-to-catch-underage-drinkers/9103

  2. http://images.solutions.lexisnexis.com/Web/LexisNexis/Infographic-Social-Media-Use-in-Law-Enforcement.pdf

  3. http://www.wired.com/2012/03/petraeus-tv-remote/ (last accessed 12th November 2014)

  4. www.nytimes.com/2011/03/03/nyregion/03facebook.html?_r=0

  5. www.policeforum.org/assets/docs/Free_Online_Documents/Technology/social media and tactical considerations for law enforcement 2013.pdf

  6. http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2013/08/23/nsa-officers-sometimes-spy-on-love-interests/

  7. www.bbc.com/news/magazine-29743857

Throughout his undercover work, the officer had four relationships with women in groups he was tasked to target, two of them long term. When he formed a relationship with Jacqui, he would spend part of the week with her before disappearing off to join his wife and two children elsewhere. When Jacqui said she was expecting a baby, he did not try to persuade her to terminate the pregnancy. Instead, he said he would stand by her, and she believed him. “I loved him, I definitely loved him,” she says. “He watched me give birth remember and, to me, he was watching his first child being born. He was there throughout the labour. And that is something so intimate between a man and a woman. “And I shared that with a ghost, with someone who vaporised. I had a spy who was being paid by the government to spy on me to the extent that he watched me give birth, so he saw every intimate part of me.

  1. www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/27/gchq-nsa-webcam-images-internet-yahoo

  2. Jacques Rancière. The Emancipated Spectator. London: Verso, 2011. p108