FBI Harassing Core Tor Developer, Demanding She Meet With Them, But Refusing To Explain Why

from the not-cool-fbi dept

Isis Agora Lovecruft is a lead software developer for Tor and has worked on Tor for many years, as well as on a variety of other security and encryption products, including Open Whisper Systems and the LEAP Encryption Access Project. And, apparently, the FBI would really like to talk to her, but won’t tell her (or her lawyer) exactly why. It’s really worth reading her whole post, which starts with an FBI agent showing up at her parents home and leaving a card, and then later phoning her mother’s cell phone while she was at work a few days later. Lovecruft had a lawyer reach out to the FBI agent in question, which resulted in an odd discussion:

Word got to my lawyer in the US, who decided to call FBI Special Agent Mark Burnett, on that Friday, saying that he represented me and my family. Burnett said the FBI simply wanted to ask me some questions. My lawyer responded by stating that, as my invoked representation, all questions should be directed to him rather than to me or my family. The agent agreed, paused while some muffled male voices were heard in the background, and asked to call back in five minutes.

Five minutes later, Burnett called back and said, ?I don?t believe you actually represent her.? Burnett stated additionally that a phone call from me might suffice, but that the FBI preferred to meet with me in person. After a pause he said, ?But? if we happen to run into her on the street, we?re gonna be asking her some questions without you present.?

Complicating matters was the fact that Lovecruft was deep into the process of moving permanently to Germany, and actually had just been visiting her family in the US. She worried about whether or not she’d even be able to leave, though eventually flew back to Europe without incident. She notes that once back in Germany, she was focused on getting all the documentation in order to get her official residence visa in Germany when the FBI again came looking for her:

The day before my appointment, I spoke with my lawyer. He had received another call, this time from a FBI Special Agent Kelvin Porter in Atlanta.

Lawyer: Hello?

Agent: Hello, this is Special Agent Kelvin Porter at the FBI field offices in Atlanta. I?m calling concerning your client.

Lawyer: Yes. Why are you trying to contact her?

Agent: Well? as before? we would strongly prefer to meet her in person. We have teams in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and Atlanta keeping an eye out for her.

Lawyer: Your colleague mentioned last time that you would accept a phone call?

Agent: We would strongly prefer to meet her in person. We? uh? have some documents we?d like her opinion on.

Lawyer: Umm?? What documents?

Agent: Anyway, if she?s available to meet with us, that would be great, thanks.

It didn?t exactly help with the stress of applying for a residence visa to know that there were teams in five cities across America keeping an eye out for me. However, I?m glad to say that, the next day, my residence visa was approved. Eight hours afterwards, my laywer received a voicemail saying:

Agent: Hello this is Special Agent Kelvin Porter, we spoke two days ago regarding your client. Umm? well? so the situation with the documents? it?s umm? it?s all fixed. I mean, we would of course still be happy to meet with your client if she?s willing, but the problem has? uh? yeah? been fixed. And uh? yeah. Just let us know if she wants to set up a meeting.

So, that seemed to settle things for the time being — though still made her nervous. That last conversation happened in January. But it appears that last week, the FBI came knocking again, and apparently said they want to serve her with a subpoena.

The FBI has contacted my lawyer again. This time, they said, ?She should meet with one of our agents in San Francisco to talk. Otherwise, are you the point of contact for serving a subpoena? She?s not the target of investigation, but, uh? we uh? need her to clear up her involvement or? uh? potential involvement in a matter.?

She’s (reasonably) worried that whatever the FBI is planning to ask her about or serve her with comes with a gag order and she won’t be able to speak about it. She also notes that she’s got a personal warrant canary, which might be worth watching for obvious reasons.

But, honestly, the part that struck me as most interesting about all of this is the incredible amount of stress that this obviously caused for her. It doesn’t matter if the FBI says she’s “not a target,” having the FBI come looking for you can really shake you up. Especially when they won’t provide any details:

I didn?t talk to anyone who wasn?t already in regular contact with me, fearing I might endanger them ? some thug might show up at their mom?s door or make some threats to their lawyers ? and I didn?t want to risk harming people I care about. It hurt to not tell my friends what was happening. I felt gagged and frightened. I wanted to play chess in the park. I wanted to learn duets on the piano. I wanted to ride bicycles through the ancient groves in the park in the endless Californian sunshine. I wanted to bring homemade vegan gluten-free brownies and stickers from collectives in France to my friends at the EFF. To be selfish, I wanted to read the number theory papers I?d just downloaded and play with a new pairing-based cryptography library I?d just been given the source to, but I couldn?t do those things either, simply because I was too stressed out to think straight.

I got absolutely no work done.

That, right there, is a clear description of the chilling effects that this kind of thing can cause. And that’s a shame. As she later notes, her paychecks for working on Tor come from the US government. She’s not a spy or a criminal. She’s working on software that makes everyone safer. And no matter what the reason for the FBI’s interest, it’s ridiculous that someone should have to go through this kind of process.

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Companies: tor project

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Comments on “FBI Harassing Core Tor Developer, Demanding She Meet With Them, But Refusing To Explain Why”

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Violynne (profile) says:

Re: Re:

That’s precisely what I noticed as well.

FBI: “We need some paperwork cleared up.”
Atty: “What paperwork.”

FBI: “Uh… hold on a second.”
Atty: [gets dial tone]

FBI: “Us again. Your client, we need her again.”
Atty: “Why?”

FBI: “Just… get her here.”
Isis: “WTF, FBI?!?”

All in all, if someone can have the feds come slamming down on an innocent person over ISIS beer funds, I can only imagine the abject horror of anyone actually named Isis, who is probably now on more watch lists than a TV guide.

That’s probably what the FBI wants to confirm, but are too fucking stupid just to say it.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Taking notes out of 'Creepy Stalkers 101' I see

One of the most disturbing aspects to this is the continued insistence on a physical meetup, as though it simply wasn’t possible to have the discussion over the phone or online in some way.

Given the repeated insistence on a physical meeting, refusal to state what they wanted her for, and the not so veiled insinuation that they’d really rather not have her lawyer present, yeah, I’d say she had plenty of reason to be worried.

phx says:

Re: Taking notes out of 'Creepy Stalkers 101' I see

They want her opinion on some documents, and I take it from the physical meetup that these are probably either classified or part of some ongoing investigation.

My guess is that there isn’t any conspiritard bullshit going on, and that they’ve Party Vanned some dude who was an exit node, and need someone to verify/tear apart his defence.

The thinly veiled ‘you might be in trouble’ routine is to make her pay attention.

Just Passin' Thri says:

Lovecruft FBI meet

Under no circumstances should she meet the FBI alone without recording the conversation.

The FBI usually has a team of 2 participate in interviews, which under recent policy can be unrecorded if inconvenient. The agents will memorialize the interview… they write up what they “recall” of the interview afterwards.

Later, she may be summoned to appear before a grand jury. They ask the same questions. For some mysterious reason, her identical answers don’t match the memorialization, which both agents swear to.

Result? Indictment for violation of USC 1001, lying to a federal agent. Prison time, or blackmail.

What to do? If encountered on the street, attract attention by screaming for them to get away from her, and run away. Otherwise, meet with them only with a witness (lawyer) present and/or on her own turf where she has a secret recording of her own. Then secrete the recording where it cannot be surreptitiously found. Better yet, live broadcast on the internet. Another suggestion, do not look at any documents while anyone other than her lawyer is present.

Standard disclaimers… IANAL

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Lovecruft FBI meet

This is not the best advice. The proper procedure is, DO NOT SPEAK ANY WORDS WHATSOEVER. Stand there like a lamp post, and SAY NOTHING. Pressure will be applied, threats will be made, SAY NOTHING. Don’t even nod or shake your head.

Do not attempt to record, you could be charged with felony wiretapping or who knows what. Reach into your pocket for a smartphone? Great way to get shot to death. ‘The suspect made a furtive movement’, ‘The suspect reached for a weapon’, the report will say.

Stand still and BE SILENT. Wait for them to go away, however long it takes.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Lovecruft FBI meet

This is not the best advice. The proper procedure is, DO
> NOT SPEAK ANY WORDS WHATSOEVER. Stand there like a lamp
> post, and SAY NOTHING. Pressure will be applied, threats
> will be made, SAY NOTHING. Don’t even nod or shake your
> head.

That’s actually extremely poor advice, Mr. Internet Lawyer Genius Person, considering the fact that the Supreme Court has ruled that a person has to affirmatively and verbally assert their right to remain silent in order for it to have legal effect. Sitting there “like a lamp post” will allow the government to argue that your silence in the face of accusations that would provoke a response in a normal person is evidence of guilt.

Your license to practice Internet Comment Thread Law should be revoked.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Rendition?

That would likely do exactly the opposite of what they want. It sounds like they want to serve her with a gag order and then compel her to do something to the TOR code.

Of course, the fact that they stated that the situation is now in hand implies that after failing with her, they approached one of her colleagues and got what they wanted. Getting her would just be an added precaution.

So: a thorough review of all recent TOR code check-ins as well as all future check-ins from anyone who might be under a gag order is in order.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Rendition?

Unlikely, I think.

More likely, I think, is that the FBI has obtained a court order to unlock her smart phone. Her fingerprint is insufficient because the FBI may need to unlock the phone multiple times, on multiple occasions during its investigation.

So the FBI has obtained a court order to remove her finger.

This seems more in the character and nature of the FBI.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:


Usually the FBI uses folks with not very much in the thinking department when they make up scenarios and then charge their coerced accomplice with a crime. This time the are obviously going a different route, but it certainly raises the question, do they think Isis is enough of a nerd that here awareness of the world is lacking so that they might pull one of their bonehead tricks on her?

The other thought that comes to mind is something that occurred to me the other day reading about someone being arrested for child porn when they (man and wife) (not quietly, but very publicly) ran a TOR exit node. Are they going to try to hold her responsible for something SODD (some other dude did) by claiming that that document they were worried about was ‘on her computer’ or some such crap?

Whatever (profile) says:

Just a guess...

I would be making a guess here, but let me show you how I add it up:

The FBI has “documents” they want to talk to her about.

The FBI wants an in person meeting, in the US.

My guess is that they have (what they feel is) just about enough to arrest her and charge her with something, and her answers to certain questions related perhaps to what work she specifically did or some action she may have taken would be the trigger.

My suggestion for her is to stay in Germany and don’t come back under any circumstances. Perhaps at best meet with the FBI in a nice public place in Germany, perhaps with the media nearby.

TOR is a great idea and very useful, but it creates an incredibly complex web of legal ramifications. I think she is about to meet one of those “rams” head on.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: FBI Trying to contact a Tor Developer

because that time did not exist, from BEFORE its inception, it evolved from orgs which trampled on rights, and run by total slimeballs like anslinger and j edna hoover, TRAITORS to the constitution…
google ‘palmer raids’ to see how much those scumsuckers cared about the constitution…
those orgs have NOTHING to do with crime and keeping us safe, but are ALL about spying on, intimidating, and framing any and all TRUE patriots who dare to speak against Empire…

I.T. Guy says:

Re: FBI Trying to contact a Tor Developer

You sir are an idiot. I doubt very much that the EffBeeEye came to talk to you about anything. Any NORMAL human being would be scared shitless and IMMEDIATELY would contact a lawyer. Anything else is just foolish. Most Americans go through their whole life never heaving a “meeting” with the FBI. I call bullshit.

cf says:

Re: Re: Re: FBI Trying to contact a Tor Developer

During my friend’s background check, which I barely remembered him warning me about because I was hungover when they called, the agent asked me if my friend had ever traveled outside the US. And I said no. Then, a few questions later I remembered that he had been an exchange student in Japan for a summer when we were freshmen in high school, so I interrupted the agent to tell him that.

agent: Okay, but do you still think he’s loyal to the United States, though?

me: Well, now that you mention it… he did seem… shorter when he returned from that trip. In the back of my mind I’ve always kinda wondered if they, you know… replaced him.

agent: Okay… we have just a few more questions to get through.

When I told him later that I’d been playing fast and loose with his career plans, my friend practically shat a brick.

Peter says:

Re: Re: FBI Trying to contact a Tor Developer

People call other people all the time and ask for a meeting. Then they work out a time and place to meet, assuming both parties are interested in the meeting. Seems like the FBI need to find someone else to ask their questions, since Isis isn’t willing.

Eventually, they sometimes just show up at the home, hoping to catch the person at home. Doesn’t really seem like “harassment” to me. I’ve had 2 stalkers which behaved worse. I’ve also been met in my office, at work, by 2 FBI guys. They were checking a reference for a friend who used me on her clearance paperwork. I knew this months earlier, but had forgotten about it completely. My office at the time, was inside a secure facility, so they had to be escorted inside.

OTOH, the FBI has been lying about all sorts of things the last 15 years. They could easily lie about the purpose for the meeting. Their previous, recent, actions, have caused this to be one of the first thoughts for paranoid people. That doesn’t mean some people shouldn’t be paranoid. Especially when the FBI is trying for months to get a meeting. Mom always said, “you capture more flies with honey than vinegar.”

It is smart not to use a phone, though bouncing off a VoIP service in a different country could be sufficient. That way, GCHQ could listen as well. 😉

If the US Gov intends to entrap her somehow, I can see why she wouldn’t be willing to talk with them. Seems their actions and general distrust of their motives have come back to bite them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: FBI Trying to contact a Tor Developer

Of those four occassions, did any of them start off in a way even vaguely similar to that described here?

* Attempt to contact a relative instead of contacting you directly
* Refuse to discuss the nature of the inquiry, even when specifically prompted to do so
* Explicit indication that a lawyer is unwelcome and will be excluded on the first opportunity, while again refusing to discuss why contact is even required
* Use unspecified methods to enable contacting your relatives on the pretense of being unable to use those same unspecified methods to contact you

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: FBI Trying to contact a Tor Developer

The only thing she’s missing at this point is a Target Letter, which will be arriving at her attorney’s office 48 hours after she talks with the FBI. They will say she’s gone from a “Person of Interest” to a Target of their Investigation as a result of their “conversations” with her.

There’s only one reason why they want to talk to her without an attorney…so she’ll speak freely and possibly incriminate herself.

By being a major Tor developer, she has a massive target on her back. Speaking as someone who has been sent two target letters from the DOJ, she rightfully should be crapping her pants right about now. She needs to get to a country that doesn’t have extradition treaties with the US as she’s in legitimate legal danger.

reader person says:

this is the worst part of the entire saga >>>

My mother assumed that, if it were really important, the agent would call her. He did, while she was at work a couple days later. (As an aside: that any random FBI agent has the ability to learn someone’s personal cell phone number and use it — uninvited — is, in my opinion, extremely threatening and unacceptable.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Getting your cell number or a relative’s cell is trivial.

I was not aware that all cell numbers were trivially and automatically public, and it seems that neither GP nor Isis Lovecruft were aware of it either. Would you care to demonstrate by providing the cell number of a randomly chosen individual, such as a Kelvin Porter? If it helps, I think he lives in or near Atlanta. Details for how you obtained it would be appreciated as well.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

A search of any of the big commercial databases will readily bring up cell numbers associated with people’s names.

It’s hardly difficult or uncommon, nor is the ability to do it limited to law enforcement. Anyone who subscribes and pays the fee can access the info.

And since when in the entire history of telephones have you either legally or culturally needed a pre-invitation to call someone before phoning them up?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

She works on cryptographic platforms and platforms that allow for anonymous communication, in an environment where the FBI is very publicly on-record as being rabidly anti-crypto and anti-anonymity.

Doing the math, the odds that such a meeting would end up going well for her are sufficiently small it would be appropriate to express them in scientific notation.

Her making noise – and lots of it – about the situation is her best defense to being put in a box (either literal or figurative) she can’t escape from.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

If they can’t tell why they need a meeting with her, there’s guaruanteed to be a NDA to sign before anything is shown. So even in best case, that they only need her for consulting on a case unrelated to herself, it would be hard for her to find employment withing encryption or anonimity software development after it.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re:

Anonymous Coward, May 5th, 2016 @ 1:45pm:

the point of “freedom” is to be allowed to do what you want as long as it doesn’t break any laws. I’m horrified to learn that you want to live in a world where, instead of free association, you have approved association, and may only associate with individuals and groups approved by your oberschtompenfuhrer, or whatever.

Lovecruft’s decision to proclaim herself an anarchist came from an erroneous belief that she is a free woman in a free country. How appalling it is that you’re so eager to consolidate the proof that she is wrong.

Anonymous Coward says:

I’m having a problem with her warrant canary. She states that if all goes well, it’ll be updated every six months. Really? Doesn’t that also mean that if things don’t go well, it could also be up to six months before we’re made aware of it? Federal agencies could cause a lot of damage in the mean time. You would think she would update it right away.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

You are overlooking the real message, the FBI are after me, so check all my code submissions.
The thing with open source is that anyone can look at the source code, and all the upstream distributions compile from source. This makes it more difficult to get a back-door in place, as it cannot be done via a sabotaged binary.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

This means nothing…backdoors by nation states have been hidden in plain sight in open source software for years. Open source is rife with bugs and vulnerabilities, which invariably lead to 0day exploits.

The three letter agencies have been known to recruit developers to plant bugs in the OSS community.

Anonymous Hero says:

Poooor Isis...

Too much Tor sympathizing by shills here. Tor is a scummy agency run by amoral punks who think that they’re hot shits who can get away with anything they want.

I think that this is either a collaborative hoax by the respective agencies involved – for some reason – or the whiny brat actually did something and that’s why her “Oh, God! Everyone support me!” ass was hightailing it to Germany.

Let’s not forget: For a long time Tor strung everyone along on the crowdsourcing myth, where they portrayed themselves as honest little David up against privacy-invading Goliath, who was backed by U.S. spy agencies who were always trying to hack the Tor network. They regularly fanned the flames of this lie with reports about attacks by these agencies, until they were exposed as, rather, being funded by them.

Then, all of a sudden, they started having a lot of public drama about internal harassment and promoting women, over the asshole, Andrea Sheperd, who started a lot it. Most of what we hear from them is devious bullshit and this probably is too.

Seriously…”Lovecruft”? Probably another lame pop culture rip off (of Lovecraft). Even the name is made up.

obscurebug (profile) says:

It's a trap

Of course this is a trap. Whenever law enforcement says things like “they just want to clear things up” or “we just want to have a chat” but get evasive providing any details other than to further their agenda means it’s a ploy because they want to confront you.

Saying a person isn’t a target – just means they don’t have paperwork filled out on you at that point in time. It also gets around them needing to talk to your lawyer first, hence grabbing you before you have representation.

HegemonicDistortion says:

Re: Re:

The whole website is down right now. On Twitter she last fielded a complaint from someone about her website “burn[ing] up a lot of mobile bandwidth” (wut??) and she said she would fix it, so I don’t know if it’s down for that reason, or for… some other reason. Would seem like a silly thing to worry about when this story is blowing up.

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