FBI Serves Incredibly Broad Warrant To 8chan, Demanding Info On All Users Who Responded To A Shooter's Post
from the not-how-probable-cause-works dept
Internet hellhole 8chan has been hit with a federal search warrant. The site, created to serve those who felt 4chan’s nearly-nonexistent moderation was too restrictive, has been front and center recently due to its hosting of manifestos by mass shooters who apparently frequented the site.
In this case, an investigation into a shooting at a California mosque has led the FBI to the pages of 8chan. Postings at the site — along with some at Facebook — have linked the shooter to the Christchurch shooting in New Zealand. According to the affidavit [PDF], the FBI believes the California mosque shooter was “inspired and/or educated” by the New Zealand’s shooters manifesto and actions.
The Poway shooter is already in custody, so the value of the information sought here is questionable. While the info may have some value in establishing the shooter’s state of mind, as well as his connection to other crimes, the warrant does bear some resemblance to a fishing expedition.
From the affidavit, it appears the feds have no shortage of evidence to use against the shooter:
Using various search methods, Whitney Buckingham an SDSD system data miner, found a manifesto on Pastebin.com written by a person identifying himself as John Earnest. In the manifesto, which he named “An Open Letter”, Earnest made many anti-Semitic and anti-muslim statements. One such statement which is a direct quote is, “As an individual, I can only kill so many Jews.” He states he is not a terrorist but that he hates anyone who he sees as a threat to his country. Earnest took credit for a fire that had been set at mosque in Escondido a few weeks earlier. His exact statement was “I scorched a mosque in Escondido with gasoline a week after Brenton Tarrant’s sacrifice and they never found shit on me. Additionally, he wrote “I spray-painted on the parking lot. I wrote ‘For Brenton Tarrant -t./pol/.”
Tarrant is the New Zealand shooter Earnest apparently tried to emulate. Obviously, the threat of copycat killers is always a concern following mass shootings, but what the government is demanding here has the potential to sweep up dozens of users who did nothing but reply to threads involving the arrested shooter.
Agents seek IP address and metadata information about Earnest’s original posting and the postings of all of the individuals who responded to the subject posting and/or commented about it. Additionally, agents seek information about any other posting coming from the IP address used by Earnest to post the subject posting.
This seems like a lot of people to be investigating for just being in the wrongest place on the internet at the wrong time. The justification for this is speculation that others who viewed the post will either become shooters themselves or somehow conspired with the shooter to carry out this horrible crime in which Earnest was the only shooter.
As discussed above, Earnest made a posting in which he thought to draw attention to his forthcoming attack on the Chabad of Poway, share his views through his open letter, and offer people the opportunity to observe the attack itself. Several people responded, both individuals who were taken aback about the posting as well as people who were sympathizers. As a result, some of the individuals may be potential witnesses, co-conspirators and/ or individuals who are inspired by the subject posting. Based on agents’ training and experience, following attacks such as those conducted by Earnest, other individuals are inspired by the attacks and may act of their own accord.
By its own admission, the FBI is seeking information about posters “taken aback” by Earnest’s post — users unlikely to be “inspired” by the shooting or his co-conspirators. Apparently, the FBI doesn’t trust 8chan to make that assessment, so it’s asking for everything so it can sort through it and draw its own conclusions, engage in its own “non-custodial” interviews, subpoena a number of other service providers for more info, etc.
In fact, the FBI would prefer Ch.net — the host for 8chan — just hand over everything demanded by the warrant without getting involved at all.
In order to accomplish the objective of the search warrant with a minimum of interference with the business activities of Ch.net, to protect the rights of the subject of the investigation and to effectively pursue this investigation, authority is sought to allow Ch.net to make a digital copy of the entire contents of the accounts subject to seizure.
However you may feel about 8chan and its denizens (and I hope those feelings are mostly negative), this is not a justifiable demand for information. The FBI wants everything on everyone in that thread, even as it states some of the users it’s targeting were appalled by what they were seeing. This makes everyone in the thread a suspect and treats anonymous users of this site as inherently suspicious, no matter what their posts actually say.