How Is It That A Random Comment On Reddit Leads To Your Friend Getting Tracked By The FBI?

from the that-doesn't-seem-right dept

Last week, we wrote about the guy who found an FBI tracking device on his car. His friend then posted the pics to Reddit, leading the FBI to show up at the original guy’s house, demanding the tracking device back. One odd part of the story is that in the discussion that ensued, the law enforcement agents showed the guy a post his friend (the one on Reddit) had made. This is how Wired described that part of the story:

Afifi retrieved the device from his apartment and handed it over, at which point the agents asked a series of questions — did he know anyone who traveled to Yemen or was affiliated with overseas training? One of the agents produced a printout of a blog post that Afifi’s friend Khaled allegedly wrote a couple of months ago. It had “something to do with a mall or a bomb,” Afifi said. He hadn’t seen it before and doesn’t know the details of what it said. He found it hard to believe Khaled meant anything threatening by the post.

“He’s a smart kid and is not affiliated with anything extreme and never says anything stupid like that,” Afifi said. “I’ve known that guy my whole life.”

Someone in our comments quickly pointed out that the “blog post” in question was actually a comment on Reddit that was in response to a discussion about silly security procedures, and the entire comment reads:

bombing a mall seems so easy to do. i mean all you really need is a bomb, a regular outfit so you arent the crazy guy in a trench coat trying to blow up a mall and a shopping bag. i mean if terrorism were actually a legitimate threat, think about how many fucking malls would have blown up already.. you can put a bag in a million different places, there would be no way to foresee the next target, and really no way to prevent it unless CTU gets some intel at the last minute in which case every city but LA is fucked…so…yea…now i’m surely bugged : /

I’m having trouble seeing how anyone could read that and think there’s anything suspicious at all about it. But, as Bruce Schneier notes, what’s really bizarre is how that comment doesn’t just lead to the guy being tracked, but his friend having his movements tracked.

If they’re doing this to someone so tangentially connected to a vaguely bothersome post on an obscure blog, just how many of us have tracking devices on our cars right now — perhaps because of this blog?

Schneier also wonders how many people are combing through the depths of sites like Reddit to totally misread comments out of context, and then using them to start surveilling someone’s whereabouts.

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Comments on “How Is It That A Random Comment On Reddit Leads To Your Friend Getting Tracked By The FBI?”

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84 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

In California judges issue search warrants. So this begs the question, how do they determine the judge to decide the validity of the warrant? Why is it that search warrants are almost always granted no matter how unwarranted they may seem. Do the feds have influence over which judge they get? Do they decide which judge is going to determine whether or not a warrant is warranted? If so, wouldn’t it make sense for them to simply seek a judge that is highly likely to grant the warrant? If so what can be done to curtail judge shopping?

jc (profile) says:

Re: Quit wondering: read "Top Secret America".

Yeah … I doubt it.

There are only around 500,000 people in the US Airforce … so, I’m not buying that number.

Also, if there were almost 1 million people monitoring the internet I think we would know a lot more about it. You can’t hire 1 million people and not have constant leaks.

ofb2632 (profile) says:

The reality of todays tech

The govt has several programs that are designed to search out certain key words in websites, blogs and even comments. Thanx to the Bush era reducing our rights laws, the govt has more access to all of our information than ever.
As a country, we have always had to weigh our privacy vs the govt’s rights to be pro active in crime, but with such right leaning Supreme justices, i think this is only the beginning.

ComputerAddict (profile) says:

Re: if I find a wonderfully expensive tracking device on my car

People with these trackers should get together and put them on the Same car. See how many trackers you can get on one car without the owner noticing. All the sudden instead of just your FBI tail you have a train of 10 FBI cars trying to follow your neighbor without “getting made.”

TSO says:

Three words: Cover Your A^Hbehind.

The agent who flagged the said friend certainly understands the guy is not a threat (he’s NOT a complete idiot). But, better safe than sorry, the agent thinks: if he doesn’t react and the guy, however unlikely, DOES blow a mall, the agent will certainly have his behind neatly handed to him.

Derek Bredensteiner (profile) says:

Profiling?

“Afifi, the son of an Islamic-American community leader who died a year ago in Egypt”
Wired Article (emphasis mine)

Not saying it’s justified by any stretch of the imagination, I would argue just the opposite in fact. Just saying we live in a day in age where if you’re related to one person who’s a community leader and have another friend who posts a random comment and happen to be of any of a variety of races, then you get profiled. Not just the random comment.

JackSombra (profile) says:

All the post is saying what many people (including myself) have been saying for a while.

If the terrorists really wanted to cause true terror and “destroy our way of life” they would just start hitting malls, concerts, sports games, train/bus stations,public transport (not planes), hell even major rush hour traffic jams so forth.

A few of those and any western country would pretty much grind to halt and turn into a police state that would make Stalin proud. And even then they could not stop them because against that kind of campaign there is nothing you can do to “make the people safe”

But instead they keep focusing on planes and authorities keep trying to make planes and airports look secure (“look” because most of it is theater)

Terrorists are either all idiots with plane fetish’s or in a game of one upmanship with authorities to prove who is better with no real intent to actually destroy their enemies

Funny thing is when i discuss this with people they are usually totally shocked because they never really thought about it

*would now go check under my car for a tracker…if i had one*

The Ole Medic (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Your point is well taken about random hits. Those of us in the Washington DC metropolitan area well remember Lee Boyd Malvo and John Allen Muhammad. Over a span of three weeks their random shootings of 13 people (10 died) brought fear and panic to the area. I remember seeing people pull into gas stations and crouch behind their car as they pumped gas. And all these guys needed was an old car and a single shot rifle.

MrWilson says:

Re: Re: Re:

I remember those days well. I worked at a retail store down the street from one of the gas stations where someone was killed. At night when the store closed, we all walked out to the parking lot together. We’d take turns walking in the front of the group and I remember thinking about the fact that you could be dead before the others saw the muzzle flash. That’s terrorism.

Mr Big Content says:

Re: Re: Washington DC Snipers

The trouble is, you?re confusing plain old criminal acts with outright terrorism. Shooting a bunch of people criminally is fundamentally different from shooting them terroristically. The cops, Feds etc can be expected to take care of crims in the usual way, but terrorists require a whole new order of response, new agencies, new laws etc. It?s a whole different ballgame, that has to be played by entirely different rules.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Washington DC Snipers

Ok, let me see:

– Crazy gunner (who is crazy) guns down 10 people, terrorizes city: criminal!
– Crazy guy (who is also crazy) bombs subway station: terrorist?

What’s the difference here? The psychological factor is the same: people are _terrified_ that they might be targeted next. They both kill people. The only difference was the method. I believe the police is more than capable of tracking either one down and put them in jail or kill them (if circumstances so require).

What’s the difference? The scale? The method? Is the police so incompetent that they cannot handle these “terrorists”?

Yogi says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Washington DC Snipers

The difference is in who is being targeted – as perceived by individuals and the group.

If the individuals being shot at in Washington D.C area had an understanding that they were being targeted for being American (white, christian, democratic, Western group) then they and law enforcement would have reacted differently.

Can you imagine the headlines – “Muslims killing Americans in the nation’s capital” as opposed to “Lunatic kills 10 in shooting spree”.

The Ole Medic (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Washington DC Snipers

From news reports at the time;

4 October 2002
A former FBI profiler said the sniper killer in suburban Maryland was probably a calculating white man in his 20s or early 30s who lives nearby and has a score to settle. “This isn’t somebody who just snapped,” said Clinton Van Zandt, a former FBI agent. “This is someone who likes what they’re doing. This is someone who is playing God. They’re sticking their finger in the face of the authorities and society.” The gunman “is somebody who is cold, who is calculating, who has the skills and doesn’t care who they hurt,” Van Zandt said.

Police searched for white trucks and vans in the area after reports that a white box truck was seen speeding away from one of the scenes.

21 October 2002
In other developments, France has alerted Interpol about a French army deserter who is known as a marksman and is missing in North America. A Defense Ministry spokesman said there was speculation of a link to the sniper investigation.

23 October 2002
An angry letter found tacked to a tree behind a restaurant where the sniper wounded a man last weekend complained of six failed attempts to reach police, and threatened more killings — of children in particular — if millions of dollars were not deposited in a bank account within two days, according to law enforcement sources.

23 October 2002
Members of the sniper task force converged on a freeway rest stop in Maryland and arrested John Allen Muhammad, a 42-year-old Gulf War veteran, and John Lee Malvo, his 17-year-old junenile companion. Police said the two were considered suspects in the shootings that have killed 10 and wounded three in the Washington area. The rest area is along a seven-mile stretch of Interstate 70 near Myersville, Maryland, that had been shut down in a dragnet launched just a few hours earlier by Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose, the head of the sniper task force.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Washington DC Snipers

Bull. Terrorism IS a criminal act. The difference between terrorism and “plain old criminal acts” lies in whether the government itself feels politically threatened. The reason the government fights terrorism so much more strongly is because the government cares so much more about itself than it does everyday people.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Indeed. You can look at what goes on in India and Pakistan for an example of highly practical and effective terrorism. Terrorists blow up crowded markets, or storm a hotel and kill everyone. The slaughter is beyond belief. There haven’t been any successful cases of domestic terrorism in the US for nearly a decade, despite a plethora of potentially scary targets, yet we are wound tighter than the places that really do fight terrorism on a daily basis. I think the hysteria that comes whenever the next successful terrorism attack occurs will make the terrorists themselves look like moderate, rational people by comparison.

By the way FBI guys, when you open my hood to wire your tracker to my battery, you have to jiggle the little catch side to side and then hold it down first before you pull. Have fun.

s. keeling says:

Re: Re: How is it that a random comment ...

“There haven’t been any successful cases of domestic terrorism in the US for nearly a decade, despite a plethora of potentially scary targets, yet we are wound tighter than the places that really do fight terrorism on a daily basis.”

You just justified your being wound tighter. They suffer, because your authorities are vigilant.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: How is it that a random comment ...

You just justified your being wound tighter. They suffer, because your authorities are vigilant.

No,no,no. “There haven’t been any successful cases of domestic terrorism in the US for nearly a decade” because of a protective magic spell that I cast. Yes, that’s right, I’ve been protecting the US all by myself. Want proof that it works? There haven’t been any successful cases of domestic terrorism in the US for nearly a decade, have there? There’s your proof. Case closed.

blaktron (profile) says:

To the Americans out there

As a Canadian, we look at your country and stand amazed that things like this are allowed to happen and nothing is done, and nothing is really said about this in the mainstream media, and wonder why you dont just leave? If enough of you just flat out moved out, this stuff would start to change. Bring your businesses to Canada, or go to Mexico. We’d love to have anyone who values freedom and brings money with them (thats anyone willing to work by the way, if you understand economics). Dont just talk about how much you’re country has deteriorated, show your leaders you care.

It wont take many business owners moving into another country out of protest before the government realizes that tax dollars are worth more than campaign contributions and returns to doing things for their people, instead of to their people.

Michael (profile) says:

Re: To the Americans out there

Unfortunately, the big business owners are the ones paying the campaign contributions. I don’t think our government would care if a bunch of small businesses moved out of the country.

And, frankly, if enough people and businesses moved to Canada to impact our tax revenue, we would have a really big 51st state in very little time. I like you Canadians, but I have a feeling you would start paying US taxes in the interest of ‘good relations’.

Plus, it’s COLD up there.

Anonymous Coward says:

Security Theater

Stuff like this is security theater. There is real security and there is security theater. Real security consists of finding, catching and prosecuting (or killing) bad guys. Security theater consists of the endless harassment of members of the public over trivia. The trouble with real security is that it is difficult and dangerous. The bad guys do not want to get found, and if found they shoot back. So what is a security service to do? Answer: security theater. The poor deluded sheeple love it. The security services get to spend unlimited money. The bad guys are perfectly happy, since nobody is bothering them. Everybody wins. Except, of course, the poor old taxpayer; taxes have gone up and the taxpayer has got nothing in return. In case you have been wondering why your taxes have gone up and government services have not improved, security theater is just one of the reasons. Happy now?

Anonymous Coward says:

If that is what it took to get him tracked I wonder what all those people downloading the U.S. Army training manual for guerrilla warfare can expect. You know the one that leaked to the public in the 80’s when I first saw the original book and it is now on the internet.

People who read it know or have an idea on how difficult it would be to try and stop any terror attack anywhere, anything can be used as a weapon.

The fight against terrorism is not a fight something tangible is the fight against an emotional state of mind, it is the fight against an opposing view.

This cannot be won by force the ultimate win will come by making friends and thus destroying the idea of a enemy.

Unfortunately many people on both sides believe in coercion and violence to solve those problems, maybe this is why people should be educated more, because when you do educate people they come up with novel solutions that don’t involve violence, is the frustration of not having a way out that make people create stupid laws and suicide bombers.

Clarkson says:

Completely expected.

I don’t think posting pictures of a suspicious looking device and asking “what is this” constitutes misreading comments out of context. He was under surveillance because of his Dad – everyone he had contact with, whether virtual or not, gets included to some degree. Posting stuff about bombs or whatever certainly won’t help you stay under the radar.

I don’t see anything odd about this.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Completely expected.

He was under surveillance because of his Dad …I don’t see anything odd about this.

So you think it is OK to target people because of their parentage, huh? Hey, how about we start targeting people who have black parents? We wouldn’t be targeting them because *they* were black, but because their *parents* were black. Yeah, I see how that works.

Anonymous Coward says:

If the followup comments can be believed, more modern tracking equipment is far harder to detect. They don’t use batteries, draining their power from the car battery instead, and are small and completely innocuous. The guy only found his because it was very large, old equipment.

So it will probably be pretty damn hard to answer the question “how many of us are being tracked right now”. Since law enforcement now has carte blanche, my guess is “a lot”. Hell, why not track everyone? Warrants are so 20th-century.

alternatives() says:

Re: Re:

Ahhh, but unless the tracking people are willing to swap SD cards/the logging device these things use radio waves and the cell phone network.

The GNU Radio project has a module that can receive the ID information cell phones send out.

Thus – carry one of the GNU radio’s with you and check for the cell phone ID’s and signal strength. If you have IDs ‘following’ you about, you know you’ve been tagged for later bagging.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

This is more reason why these tracking schemes don’t work. I’m not seriously going to buy equipment to figure out if the FBI or anyone is tracking me. I have no reason to, I’m not doing anything for them to worry about and I really have nothing to hide that they should be interested in.

Guess who is going to have this equipment? Those who actually have something to hide. A terrorist is much more likely to carry the equipment required to inspect, hide, disguise, and encrypt their behavior and communication channels than a Joe Blow citizen. Most Joe Blow citizens aren’t going to have the equipment required to do all this and they aren’t going to waste their time bothering. What for? How many people do you know regularly inspect their vehicles and homes for bugs?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“I have no reason to, I’m not doing anything for them to worry about and I really have nothing to hide that they should be interested in.”

Oh boy, the old “if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear argument”. That’s been debunked so many times that I’m not even going to bother doing it here again. I’ll just note that it was posted by another *anonymous* poster. Oh, the hypocrisy.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Ahhh, but unless the tracking people are willing to swap SD cards/the logging device these things use radio waves and the cell phone network.

Ummm, no. I don’t where you’re getting your information (maybe making it up?), but they don’t have to use “the cell phone network”. Radio was not invented in the 1980’s along with cell phones.

teka (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Ah, thanks for this post.

I know that you must be a Master-certified Automotive Technician who keeps their car in a secured steel vault overnight (and in fact, never drive anywhere, can’t be too careful) but surprisingly, the common person would not notice a tiny black plastic box with wires among the dozen of other small black boxes with wires under the hood, even if they were suddenly looking*.

Any agent trying to install a device like this will have a brand new key, cut from original dealer codes, or the complete locksmith set for your make or model. They know where to find the right power supplies and where to put the device. They have a badge and paperwork that will get them past the “security agent” at the front of your apartment garage or workplace.

The question is not and has never been “how are people missing these devices?” it is “Who is watching the watchmen here?”

*and remember folks, if you have OnStar or similar installed in your car you are a warrant away from being tracked without anyone attaching anything anywhere, even if you are not paying for the service. And the bar for getting a warrant or even “reaching an understanding with the service provider” is worringly getting lower and lower.

bomb postal mall weapon device danger destroy terror scare revenge explode fire burn acid biological radiation radioactive dirty bomb poison mail

Is that enough?
what if my brother knew a guy who once said he visited Pakistan one time?

Anonymous Coward says:

I'll be...

You do realize that because you reproduced the original comment, you and all your readers are now being tracked by the FBI πŸ™‚

On a more serious note, as a programmer I can see how a computer might mistake that (think about false positives the spam filters gives you). However as a human with an actual functioning brain, I wonder how comes the agents that did the surveillance didn’t notice/bother to read the complete comment before making the decision. What I wanna say here is: does someone actually do some research on the positives the computer gives, or they just trust the machine (if it’s the second one, I’m happy I’m not an US citizen)

Anonymous Coward says:

The FBI weren’t tracking the guy who posted the comment (Khaled), they were tracking his friend (Yasir) for other reasons, presumably related to his father. When Yasir found the tracking device, Khaled made a post about it on reddit. Then the FBI must have gone through his old comments to find that one. The comment itself was not what started the chain of events.

Anonymous Coward says:

security theater

I often think that security lines in airports are the perfect place for a terrorist attack… a large number of people standing in side-by-side queues, all waiting to get mowed down by machine gun fire. Regardless of how far you move the checkpoint from the airport, it will cause a bottleneck that can be attacked. My car is the black Lexus, third row from the right.

just joe says:

Parinoia creats jobs in the Govt companies.

and yes they are companies (if you have a service being provided for which there a fee to be paid)

in order to create a higher demand for a product(service) create a need for for that product or sevice.
When the higher demands are fulfilled bump up the scale (threat level) to create a demand that isnt there.

hey what can you do, thats bussiness.

joe

JonValJon says:

This guy is saying exactly what everyone is thinking, or at least should be…

Why are the only thing “terrorists” are interested in, the most hard to access targets there are? Look at the past threats that have been thwarted… planes, army bases and extremly crowded and unlikley targets (time square and pioneer square in portland), where the crowd sourcing of threat detection would most certianly be interested in the strange white van parked there…

Then you look at easy targets, ones that you would not need to die to hit, just plant your stuff and walk away. We have thousands of miles of insecure rail, passanger or cargo, we have malls, schools and transit stations, all extremly soft..

This leads us to two conclusions..

Either we are scared shitless of the dumbest criminal minds in history, who for some reason choose the hardest to hit targets, with the highest odds of getting shot and killed.. or the “terror” threat is actually zilch.

Im thinking the latter.

Mayhaps the feds are just pissed this guy figured out their little game of trumping up absurd threats, and ignoring the fact that if “terrorism” was as bad as they say it is, we would be seeing soft targets hit all the time. But we do not.

A side note… Affi, or anyone else this will happen to in the future… put the damn GPS device on another vehicle! For eels. Put it in the trash and let them search through the dump for it. Good god. Play games too, it seems to be the only thing the “terror” threat is good for..

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