Incarcerated & Facebook

Callum Prentice
Jan 20 · 3 min read

TL;DR;
Mysteriously flagged as incarcerated by Facebook and locked out of my account at the worst possible time.

I was browsing Facebook on Friday evening, clicked on a link in a post and was immediately logged out. (I subsequently checked the URL and it was innocuous — an NBC Bay Area page about expensive real estate). I tried to log back in and after doing so, received a message telling me that my account had been locked because I was incarcerated and as such, disallowed from using Facebook. I checked my other devices and sure enough, I had been logged out everywhere — mobile and desktop. WTH!

The dialog telling me I was locked out had a “This is a mistake” button so I clicked that and got taken to a page where you are invited to enter your date of birth, upload a scan of your ID and a scan of your “release papers” — presumably the papers they give you after you’ve previously been incarcerated and then released. Since I had no way of complying with the latter, I set my birthday, uploaded my ID and wrote a note telling whomever was on the other end that it was a mistake and can they please unlock my account.

It’s worth pointing out why I even care about Facebook anymore. As an expat living in the US, it’s invaluable for keeping up with events from friends and family overseas. However, at this particular time, my mum had passed away unexpectedly a few days earlier and I was arranging the details of her funeral with my sister using Facebook Messenger. That stopped working as soon as my account was locked.

The next day I got one of those frustrating emails from Facebook support that indicate your initial comments weren’t looked at, even superficially — something like “No problem — just upload a scan of your release papers and we’ll go ahead and unlock the account”. I replied to the email with another assurance I wasn’t in fact sitting in a cell but rather, sitting at home trying to get into my account but heard nothing more.

Fortunately I have some friends and ex-colleagues who work at Facebook so I reached out to them and asked for help, some of whom were kind enough to submit internal support tickets on my behalf. I wasn’t sure that was going to help so I fired off more emails and uploads of my ID but heard nothing. Thankfully 3 days later, I got a very terse email — “We unlocked your account” — and so it was. No apology. No explanation. No assurances that it was a mistake and wouldn’t happen again. Presumably one of the support tickets my friends submitted got to someone with the ability to unlock it. Once again, like an idiot, I replied to the email, thanking them for unlocking and asking for clarification as well as an assurance it wouldn’t happen again. Needless to say, I got nothing back. I think it’s fair to say that if I didn’t have contacts at Facebook I could ask for help, my account would still be locked.

So why was my account flagged? Perhaps a bug in some internal, terrifyingly complex AI system? Mistaken identity? Public IP accidentally flagged as belonging to a prison or jail? My best guess though is that it was the same person who seems to be trying to get access to my account with weekly password reset requests and offers to purchase it.

I did find a form online at Facebook.com that allows members of law enforcement to report incarcerated users but it needs all kinds of official information like department ID and badge number. Perhaps that can be faked or else Facebook doesn’t check the information that’s submitted too rigorously. Kind of scary in any case and probably means my account will be locked again at some point.

Going forward, I (of course) switched to another channel to communicate with my sister. I backed up my Facebook data and saved a list of my friends. I still find it invaluable for keeping in touch with my geographically dispersed friends and relatives so I’ve no plans to close it but if this happens again, I’m not sure I have the energy to do all this again.

Callum Prentice

Written by

British, in San Francisco via Singapore, Barcelona, Hong Kong & Brighton. Developer at Linden Lab since 2004. Founder of Industrial Might & Logic combat robots.

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