The Federal Bureau of Investigation decided in 2007 that it didn’t need to be the Federal Bureau of Investigation to trick a teenager online. Instead, it acted as a local newspaper.
At the time, the FBI wanted to identify the owner of an anonymous MySpace account connected to bomb threats against a high school in Lacey, Washington. So the bureau created a fake news story about the bomb threats and ginned up an email appearing to come from the Seattle Times, which it sent to the MySpace account, according to documents obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Included in the email were links that appeared to point at the Times‘ website but which, in fact, linked to servers controlled by the FBI. Those servers, in turn, installed spyware on the target’s computer. The ruse worked: The owner of the account clicked on the links, compromising his identity as a 15-year-old student. He was subsequently arrested and convicted.
The FBI’s newspaper impersonation, plucked from the documents today by ACLU technologist Christopher Soghoian, is starting to look like another instance of investigative overreach by the federal government.
“We are outraged that the FBI, with the apparent assistance of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, misappropriated the name of The Seattle Times to secretly install spyware on the computer of a crime suspect,” Times editor Kathy Best was quoted as saying in her paper. “Not only does that cross a line, it erases it.”
The FBI, meanwhile, tells the paper its goal was “preventing a tragic event,” i.e. a school shooting. In other words, if the government isn’t allowed to impersonate journalistic organizations, people might die. And when dealing with wily 15-year-old kids you’ve got to pull out all the stops.