In the summer of 2015, as Memphis exploded with protests over the police killing of a 19-year-old man, activists began hearing on Facebook from someone called Bob Smith. The name was generic, and so was his profile picture: a Guy Fawkes mask, the symbol of anti-government dissent.
Smith acted as if he supported the protesters, and, slowly, they let him into their online community. Over the next three years, dozens of them accepted his friend requests, allowing him to observe private discussions over marches, rallies, and demonstrations. In public postings and private messages he described himself as a far-left Democrat, a “fellow protester” and a “man of color.”
But Smith was not real. He was the creation of a white detective in the Memphis Police Department’s Office of Homeland Security whose job was to keep tabs on local activists across the spectrum, from Black Lives Matter to Confederate sympathizers.
The detective, Tim Reynolds, outed himself in August under questioning by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, which sued the police department for allegedly violating a 1978 agreement that prohibited police from conducting surveillance of lawful protests. The revelation validated many activists’ distrust of local authorities. It also provided a rare look into the ways American law enforcement operates online, taking advantage of a loosely regulated social media landscape — and citizens’ casual relinquishing of their privacy — to expand monitoring of the public.