Authorities at the Mall of America used a fake Facebook account under the name Nikki Larson to befriend political activists and collect photos and information on their plans. The Mall of America made Nikki’s account back in 2009, but they’ve recently used it to target the Black Lives Matter movement. Activists don’t need to worry about unfriending the fictional Larson; the authorities deleted her shortly after news broke about the bizarre surveillance strategy.
Last month, Jeh Johnson, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, warned Mall of America shoppers to be particularly careful according to CNN.
“If anyone is planning to go to the Mall of America today, they’ve got to be particularly careful. There will be enhanced security there, but public vigilance, public awareness and public caution in situations like this is particularly important, and it’s the environment we’re in, frankly.”
Of course, Johnson’s statements were prompted by a video from terrorist group Al-Shabaab, which listed the Mall as one of its potential targets. Nevertheless, the Mall of America private security unit is using its man-hours and surveillance to track down Black Lives Matter activists and make sure they don’t conduct another protest there.
The Intercept first reported on the fake Facebook account. The news site claims it obtained a large cache of documents that revealed the extent of the Mall’s interest in the protests against police brutality, including individual briefs on Black Lives Matter protest organizers.
Even though the account has been open since 2009, the fake persona began to change starting December 11th last year, when news about a Black Lives Matter protest being planned for the Mall started to spread.
That protest occurred on December 20th. 3,000 people convened on the Mall premises; police arrested 11 of them on misdemeanor charges. The Mall of America is seeking a restitution of $65,000 for the civil disturbance.
The Intercept also revealed the fake Facebook account’s creator is “Sam Root” an Intelligence Analyst at Mall of America.
Root appears to have used a friend’s Facebook photo for Nikki Larson along with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. for the background, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
The fake account had 817 friends before it was deleted.
This isn’t the first story involving the Mall of America’s aggressive anti-terrorism unit, and its scrutiny of non-terrorists. NPR reports that mall goer Francis Van Asten came under suspicion while filming at the Mall. He insisted that he was just a tourist making a home video, but was nevertheless hauled into the Mall of America basement for an hour of questioning, which ended with authorities erasing the film.
When the ordeal was over, the Army vet reported being pretty shaken by the experience.
“When I was finally released, I couldn’t find my way to my own car for over a half-hour. I sat down in my car and I cried and I was shaking like a leaf.”
As for the Black Lives Matter surveillance, the Verge reports that the Mall of America has issued a statement about the Intercept story.
“Our security teams use a careful combination of physical means, some of which our guests can see and many of which they cannot see, as well as digital means such as social media. We do not follow individuals or groups based on political viewpoints, however we do track conversations that may pose a security concern. These conversations may include unauthorized illegal protests, potential criminal activity or harmful acts on Mall of America property… The goal is, and always will be, to protect Mall guests and create a safe and enjoyable environment for the whole family.”
Despite the statement, people will likely be asking if the Mall of America went too far with its fake Facebook account.
[Image Credit: Getty Images]