Fake Identity, coming to a lawsuit near you

It’s been building for a while, but here’s the best example I’ve seen so far: a group of teens have been sued for impersonating another.  Basically, the four teens created a Facebook profile for their target, putting a lot of work into making it look real, and then used it to make their target look like a racist ass.  This probably isn’t unusual by now, but they went far enough to cause demonstrable harm to the kid, resulting in a defamation suit that sounds like it has a good chance of winning.

It does lead me to wonder where this is all going legally.  When we talk about “identity theft” today, we’re usually talking about schemes designed to steal your money or credit.  But this is a different sort of identity theft, perhaps even more damaging in the long run — taking control of your public profile and changing what people believe you to be.

I’m struck by the fact that, when this did turn into a lawsuit, the suit was defamation.  This seems to imply that the basic action of impersonation either isn’t illegal, or at least doesn’t result in a harsh enough punishment.  My gut says that it probably ought to be quite illegal, although my head says that it’s always difficult to write laws like this without pretty severe unintended consequences.

Opinions?  Do you think there should be harsh laws against this kind of identity theft — designed not to steal, but simply mislead?  Do you think it’s possible to write such a law well?  What sort of consequences is it likely to have?  I’m chewing this one over myself…

4 Responses to “Fake Identity, coming to a lawsuit near you”

  1. -dsr- Says:

    Circumstances make it so hard to get laws right.

    Some possible cases off the top of my head:
    – I open an account in my own name, but it’s the same as your name. Can we sue each other for damaging the other’s reputation? What if I deliberately tarnish my own in order to get you? (If this seems farfetched, pretend our name is Donald Trump.)

    – I open an account with an obvious pseudonym, and leave clues that I am you, but don’t say it outright. I tarnish your rep.

    – I open an account in a random name, leave false clues that it is actually a sock puppet belonging to you, and tarnish your rep.

    – I open an account in your name without knowing anything about you at all, just picking it as a pseudo, and tarnish your rep by accident.

    Once I logged into AmberMud as Roger Zelazny, back while he was still alive. I had people going for several hours.

  2. Chad Says:

    My rough understanding is that impersonation is only illegal in certain cases – notably impersonating people of authority to gain confidence or access (police, doctors, often). Otherwise, impersonations are arguably a form of free speech. Identity theft again is not illegal for having impersonated someone, but for having done so to gain access to identity-restricted items. Defamation, libel, and slander are all about doing harmful things to a persons reputation. Identity itself is really used for disambiguation, and anything beyond that is not identity, it is reputation.

  3. Justin Says:

    Hmm. A fair point, and perhaps even the correct way to look at it. But it raises the knock-on question of, what defines “reputation”? There seems to be an implication here that it’s a single spectrum, but I’m not sure that that’s true — that is, I’m not sure simple value judgements of harm really cover the possible damage, which can be fairly subtle.

    Mind, I’m by no means sure here: I do think that tightening things up without crossing into territory of chilling free speech is hard. But the gut-check says that identity *matters* more now than it used to — that the Internet has made identity squishier, much easier to impersonate, and yet arguably more important than it used to be. It feels to me like some new legal philosophy is needed in order to match that, but I don’t think it’s going to be easy to puzzle that out…

  4. Joshua Kronengold Says:

    I think the theoretical way the law works now is fine (if applied, properly). We don’t restrict what you can do per se (lying per se is not illegal, nor is impersonation), but we do hit you with penalties based on actual intent or results (so if you defame someone’s character, you can get hit with libel, slander, or defamation of character; if you pretend to be someone in order to falsely make money, you can get prosecuted for fraud; if you impersonate someone in a fashion that endangers others (I think policeman or doctor falls under this), then you’re committing reckless endangerment.

    But by classifying crimes/torts based on the harm they do rather than the behavior in general, we avoid making actions crime when there isn’t any victim for it to be a crime against (kinda like if we decriminalized drug use/sale, we could still prosecute people for inappropriate actions taken under the influence, for providing drugs to a minor or otherwise without valid consent, etc).

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