FBI Swept Up Info About Aaron Swartz While Pursuing An Al-Qaeda Investigation

from the stocking-the-back-room-for-a-rainy-day-of-searches dept

The FBI has the power to collect massive amounts of data and communications during its investigations. This power periodically ingests NATSEC steroids, pumping the FBI’s data stores full of stuff not relevant to the NSA’s work, but possibly relevant to the FBI’s crime-fighting duties.

You would think the FBI would toss anything not relevant to an investigation. Just in terms of storage and haystack-sorting, it would only make sense to discard data/communications not needed for ongoing investigations. But you’d be wrong. The FBI holds on to everything it gets because you never know: the irrelevancies you hoovered up yesterday might be useful today.

That’s pretty much what happened to Aaron Swartz, according to documents published by Dell Cameron of Gizmodo.

Nearly two years before the U.S. government’s first known inquiry into the activities of Reddit co-founder and famed digital activist Aaron Swartz, the FBI swept up his email data in a counterterrorism investigation that also ensnared students at an American university, according to a once-secret document first published by Gizmodo.

The email data belonging to Swartz, who was likely not the target of the counterterrorism investigation, was cataloged by the FBI and accessed more than a year later as it weighed potential charges against him for something wholly unrelated.

The data collected — most likely obtained with an NSL — came from Pittsburgh University. It was part of a data haul associated with the FBI’s terrorism investigation. Swartz was never the target of this Al-Qaeda investigation but the information obtained remained in the FBI’s data stores even though the FBI had no reason to hold onto non-hit data.

When the FBI did start looking in Swartz’s activities, it found his email address in the stored data it had obtained from the university in 2007. This apparently happened in 2008, around the time the FBI was trying to determine if Swartz had violated any laws by freeing millions of court documents from PACER.

The FBI targeted a foreign terrorist entity but ended up with an untold amount of email metadata originating from US persons’ accounts. The only reason we’re seeing any evidence of the FBI’s backdoor domestic searches come to light is Aaron Swartz’s inadvertent involvement. If it hadn’t been for a high-profile prosecution and Swartz’s tragic suicide, public interest in the FBI’s investigative activities surrounding Swartz would likely have minimal public interest. But Swartz’s prosecution and death have put more eyes on the case, including those of transparency group Property of the People, which obtained this document through an FOIA lawsuit against the agency.

This document is more evidence the FBI abuses its investigative privileges. The agency engages in foreign-facing terrorism investigations, hoovering up as much “relevant” data as it can. Rather than discard everything not related to the investigation, the FBI stores it indefinitely. When the FBI opens a domestic investigation, it can give itself a head start by digging through its data stores for info it has “inadvertently” gathered on American citizens. The information the FBI already has on hand — info it really can’t justify keeping — helps build cases against Americans while depriving them of their right to challenge the evidence against them. Americans don’t know about this evidence because it’s laundered by NSLs, warrants, and whatever else the FBI needs to deploy to duplicate the results of data store searches the agency has already performed.

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Comments on “FBI Swept Up Info About Aaron Swartz While Pursuing An Al-Qaeda Investigation”

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That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Its almost like I can see the future…. or I follow Tim on teh Twitters and see things like this coming.

No wonder the FBI can’t count phones, they;ve crammed every office with over priced flash drives to hold all of the data they are hoovering up just in case they need to crush someone some day.

Given how shitty the systems we pay top dollar for are protected…
that they used this against Aaron…
Anyone want to guess how large the bullseye on the side of this target is??
Imagine all of the nifty things we could learn about our ‘betters’ who just happened to be recorded 10 years ago doing something that if it came out today would end their career…

How many can get taken down before they decide that maybe just maybe we’ve given up far to much & the potential for abuse is overwhelming??

Game on & good hunting…

Anonymous Coward says:

Our respectable Stasi-on-steroids law enforcement officials have already admitted that even if their surveillance records and citizen dossiers were obtained and retained illegally, they simply work backwards and figure out a different, legal evidence trail that would have led them to where they are now, and they tell the judge that’s the path they followed all along.

Congress needs to make this kind of mass data collection, acquisition, and retention by the executive branch wholly illegal, with significant financial penalties for agencies found in violation.

Shaun Wilson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I agree almost completely with this with the exception that the penalties should apply to the people in the agencies acting illegally instead of (or in addition to) the actual agencies and probably should include significant criminal penalties as well. If it’s not their own money the fine comes out of then almost no level of fine could possibly be high enough to have any effect.

Shaun Wilson (profile) says:

Jail the prosecutors

The people who prosecuted/perseceted Swartz belong in jail, their harassment led directly to his death. With social media bullying suicides getting attention it’s absurd this isn’t considered criminal as harassment is thousands of times worse with the power of the state behind the bully. But obviously that’s exactly why it isn’t criminalised, even in our supposed modern democracies we still have a high Court/low Court system like in feudal days but with politicians and selected “public servants” now in the place of the nobility.

Separate and unequal justice for all.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Jail the prosecutors

yeah — and jail the court judges who rubber-stamped those prosecutors
— and jail the people who put those prosecutors/judges in power
— and jail all the elected officials who let this happen

But where can you the honest prosecutors/judges/LEOs/Congressmen/Presidents/etc willing and able to clean up this corruption(?) — you can’t!

Corruption and abuse of power are inherent in any societal organization that grants exclusive violent power to one segment of that society over the rest of that society.

Anonymous Coward says:

isn’t this ‘we want to know everything about everyone for no particular reason, while stopping everyone from doing anything about it or finding out about it’ the things that were fought against in the 30’s and 40’s, the thing that we condemn the likes of China, Russia, N.Korea, Iran etc for doing? when is it going to dawn on people that these countries do these things because they know they are done in USA, the most paranoid country on the Planet?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: particula reason

“the government wants to control the general population”


This question has intrigued me for some time, what do thgey get out of it … money? fame? gratification?

I do not get it. If I had to control the lives of everyone else I think I would go mad. It is a fools errand, why do they waste so much resources upon it – it’s insane.

Peter says:

Re: Re: Re: particula reason

Why do they want control? The main reason is no money, fame or gratification. They are bonuses. The reason they want control is to prevent or delay their removal from power. If you can control or guide people’s thinking, its less likely they will revolt against you with weapons or the voting paper. Power over you and other people’s pathway is the most addictive drug.

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

It's the nature of intelligence agencies

The intelligence agencies are chronically suspicious. If an agency doesn’t find something to support its suspicions of a person, that is merely proof that it doesn’t have enough data on the person. There is no such thing as someone being cleared once a suspicion has been raised.

Over and over again, the agency finds itself unable to prove its suspicions. That does not lead the agency to question its suspicions or its methodology, it merely proves its belief it is not keeping enough data. As a result it must always, always, always keep more data AND keep it all forever. The ultimate in circular reasoning and confirmation bias.

Stop being surprised they keep everything and keep it forever. It’s what all the intelligence agencies do. NYPD, FBI, or NSA, they’re all cut from the same coal-tarred cloth.

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