So Much For Going Dark: FBI Using Social Media, E-Commerce Sites To Track Down Suspects (Including Non-Lawbreakers)

from the where's-the-darkness dept

You know the drill, right? The FBI keeps insisting that it has a "going dark" problem due to encryption making it impossible to access key evidence of supposedly criminal behavior, in theory allowing crime to happen without recourse. The problem, though, is that nearly every single bit of this claim is false. It's kind of stunning.

  • It appears that, in practice, the FBI almost never runs into encryption.
  • In the rare cases where it has (and we don't know how many because since the FBI admitted it over exaggerated how many "locked" devices it had, and then has since refused to provide an updated count), there do appear to be ways to get into those devices anyway.
  • But the key issue, by far, is that the opposite of going dark is happening. Thanks to our increasingly electronic lives, the government actually has way more access to information than ever before.
Two recent articles highlight this in practice, with regards to the FBI trying to track down the rare cases of criminal activity happening around some of the protests. The local ABC affiliate in Philadelphia has the fairly remarkable story of how the FBI used Etsy, Poshmark and Linkedin to track down someone suspected of torching two Philadelphia police cars. How would those sites be useful? Well:

In amateur photos given to authorities, she is seen wearing a T-shirt that says, "Keep the immigrants, deport the racists."

They were able to trace the T-shirt back to an Etsy shop, where a review was left by a user that displayed a Philadelphia location.

Investigators say open searches for the username led them to a Poshmark user by the name of lore-elisabeth. Open searches for a Lore Elisabeth in Philadelphia led investigators to a LinkedIn profile for a woman who was employed as a massage therapist.

And, then they checked the website of her employer, which... included a few videos of a woman who matched the photographs of the woman lighting the cop car on fire.

None of that would have been possible in that way pre-internet. The FBI doesn't have a "going dark" problem at all. They have more light than ever before. Indeed, it seems a bit more darkness and privacy would be useful, because in some cases, the FBI seems to completely overreacting to otherwise fine (or, in some cases, joking) social media posts.

And that brings us to the second story, from NBC News, detailing the FBI trawling social media to arrest protesters they claim tried to incite riots at various (mostly peaceful) protests. Of course, the details suggest that the FBI may have an itchy trigger finger in freaking out about what people are posting, as the story details many of the charges are being dropped after the facts come in and the overzealous FBI appears to have overreacted. Indeed, it looks like they're arresting people entirely based on social media posts, which raises some pretty significant 1st Amendment questions. Or at least it would, if prosecutors didn't realize what a mess they'd caused and dropped the charges quickly.

Avery is one of four known people across the United States indicted on charges of incitement to riot solely on the basis of social media posts, according to federal court records. One man was charged for posting a crude napalm recipe that is widely available online. His charges were dropped several days later. Another man was questioned by the FBI for jokingly tweeting that he was the local head of antifa — a loose anti-fascist and left-leaning political movement with no clearly-defined organization, structure or leadership.

Taken together, the cases offer some insight into how federal law enforcement continues to monitor online speech related to social movements and pursue what legal experts say is a fairly aggressive approach to prosecution.

The charges against Avery were suddenly dropped without explanation Wednesday.

In other words, the problem does not appear to be "going dark." The problem appears to be so much sunlight that the FBI is finding "crimes" where none actually exist...

Filed Under: arrests, fbi, investigations, social media
Companies: etsy, facebook, linkedin


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  • icon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 22 Jun 2020 @ 8:06am

    This is the FBI we're talking about

    I am surprised that the FBI didn't attempt to establish fake sting operations against those people charged. Either they were in too much of a hurry, or they realized those folks weren't marginalized enough to be able to fool them into participating in such a scam. But hey, time will tell, there may be some more cases in the pipeline that will tell us more.

    As to the woman they 'tracked' down, it remains to be seen if this 'hunt' results in being able to 'prove beyond a reasonable doubt' that the person they 'caught' was actually the one setting the fire. That person may turn out to have an unimpeachable alibi, or something. That also remains to be seen.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 22 Jun 2020 @ 10:03am

      Re: This is the FBI we're talking about

      As to the woman they 'tracked' down,

      Then there are the tattoos. A short sleeved t-shirt is not the best idea when you have tattoos on you arm, and wish to hide your identity

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 22 Jun 2020 @ 2:46pm

      Re: This is the FBI we're talking about

      It seems some of these cases may have come about from political pressure from Trump and Barr who tried to blame the protests on ANTIFA and thus needed some evidence of it after the FBI said they weren't involved, for example in the reporting about the guy who said he was the head of ANTIFA he stated the FBI Agent who interviewed him knew it was a waste of time but was ordered to do so.

      For the Fake Stings the FBI may have just left that to the DEA as they are the experts at it especially when it involves going after minorities and the DEA were begging to be given permission to go after protestors.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 22 Jun 2020 @ 9:49am

    Paraphrasing a Twitter post I saw on this subject: That cops can trace the source of a partial logo seen in a video still so they can catch someone who set a cop car on fire proves that they could find anyone’s stolen property if they actually worked for the people.

    (Another lesson: Always wear masks and plain clothes when protesting, even [and especially] if you’re not damaging property.)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 22 Jun 2020 @ 10:04am

      Re:

      And hide any tattoos.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Celyxise (profile), 22 Jun 2020 @ 10:41am

      Enhance!

      Maybe we can replace civil asset forfeiture with asset recover fund. They get a percentage of what is recovered. Of course we'll need to make sure they can't just steal things themselves to later recover them from "anonymous" tips.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Uriel-238 (profile), 22 Jun 2020 @ 12:15pm

      Protesting Clothes

      That's the whole point of Black Bloc attire. Everyone wears the same approximate black hoodie, dark pants, black mask to a protest. Originally it was used to have the the effect of obfuscating violent actors, but when fighting against an institution that will persecute plain old dissent, it has the advantage of obfuscating that too.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 22 Jun 2020 @ 11:46am

    WOW...

    So all the politics of this problem are Mute.
    I wonder if they will get the HINT with FOSTA.

    YOU want people to feel SAFE/COMFORTABLE enough to be idiot enough to have pictures taken of everything, and for most eveyrthing they Say, to be read.

    Even in the event 1 person mentions 1 thing about a situation, makes it easier to Figure out and track those in the group.

    Anyone reminded of the Loud mouth drunk, opening up and saying what he did..

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Norahc (profile), 22 Jun 2020 @ 1:25pm

    Well, to be honest, when your head is as far up your ass as those proclaiming there is a "going dark" problem have it, I'm sure everything appears to be dark.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    JMT (profile), 22 Jun 2020 @ 2:12pm

    Is it though?

    "The local ABC affiliate in Philadelphia has the fairly remarkable story of how the FBI used Etsy, Poshmark and Linkedin to track down someone suspected of torching two Philadelphia police cars."

    I don't think we should be describing it as remarkable, it just sounds like competent detective work to me. Y'know, their job.

    I suspect their efforts wouldn't have been quite so remarkable if it had just been a couple of private cars though.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 22 Jun 2020 @ 3:54pm

      Re: Is it though?

      it just sounds like competent detective work to me. Y'know, their job.

      As was pointed out on Bruce Schneier's blog post about this, it's possible that the official story is "parallel construction" to cover up the real way they found her.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 23 Jun 2020 @ 8:34am

    I'm still waiting for someone to admit this was parallel construction done after they had scooped all the data they could, located their perp then built an impressive trail showing how they found her without violating the civil rights of hundreds of people...

    Tell me I wear a tinfoil hat but isn't this the same agency that managed to miss:
    a white supremacist announcing he was going to shoot up the holocaust museum
    the what was it 9(?) Saudi nationals training at the base where one, after 2 years of expressing jihad interests no less, he shot & killed people and his own iphone. Then they checked the other guys, found more jihadists in training and Child Porn quickly send them back to the kingdom

    In a nation where 5(6?) black men were found hung & all ruled suicide with no investigation... somehow torching a cop car is a higher priority than human lives.

    They haven't stopped a plot they didn't put into motion themselves in years, they haven't managed to investigate any of the horrific things that have happened to POC, they constantly bitch about the million locked phones.... yet they managed to miss the big fish who were price gouging only scaring a couple little guys into folding.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 23 Jun 2020 @ 8:56am

      Re:

      somehow torching a cop car is a higher priority than human lives.

      That is when it gets personal, and the cops have to show that they are to be feared and obeyed.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Uriel-238 (profile), 23 Jun 2020 @ 2:09pm

        feared and obeyed

        The problem of being feared and obeyed is that then the public is no longer being policed by consent.

        And when the power of force turns around, it becomes (according to Jefferson and company) the natural duty of the people to crush the police like a rampaging elephant and irrigate the tree of liberty.

        Not that law enforcement seems capable of looking at the long game. I suspect we might become enraged enough to put heads on pikes and keep killing until we've torn through the clerks and administrators, much as we did the Holocaust.

        Considering our disregard for plagues sweeping through our prisons and the efforts being taken to keep the press away, it's starting to look like they've been rhyming with german concentration camps for a while now.

        And we're all on the list.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Jun 2020 @ 10:04am

    Words Mean Things

    "FBI trying to track down the rare cases of criminal activity happening around some of the protests"

    Ha! When Techdirt doesn't understand a simple word like "rare", it's no wonder Techdirt's conclusions are almost always wrong. They often get the facts right - the details of the story - but usually misinterpret what the facts mean .

    Burn-Loot-Murder BLM spent weeks committing arson, assault, animal torture, vandalism, terrorism, and other anti-civilization violence in full view of the public, and Masnick claims criminal activity at the "protests" was "rare". Oh, sorry, "around" "some" of the "protests".

    Here's an example of the word "rare" being used correctly : Techdirt rarely understands the world.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Uriel-238 (profile), 23 Jun 2020 @ 4:08pm

      "Burn Loot Murder"

      Anonymous Coward do you understand burning, looting and murdering are exactly the things our civilization has been doing to its own citizens (by way of the state's agents in the form of law enforcement officers)? Do you understand Blacks and minorities are grossly over-represented among its victims?

      If people are burning down precincts and storefronts, it's because the civilization part is long gone. Those of us who have been othered are outlaws. We were never invited to participate in civilized society. Our efforts were continuously seized and taken away because your social club doesn't accept our kind. It never did, and many of us are now confident it never will.

      We're non-persons. Anticitizens.

      Raiders. Marauders. Pirates. Or victims of the next holocaust.

      And so yes, your civilization must be razed to ash so that an inclusive that regards everyone unconditionally take its place. Otherwise, you're just using resources we need.

      So fuck your precinct. Fuck your department stores. Fuck your sports halls of fame. Fuck your Parthenon. Fuck your Eternal City. We do not grieve when Rome is sacked once again because we were never allowed to be a part of Rome's glory in the first place. Fuck your manifest destiny and eminent domain.

      The United States has given its most marginalized no redress of grievances, no say in its governance, no consent by which laws are enforced. Even in the general election we get to choose the senile monster or the senile milquetoast guy...for those of us who actually get to vote, and can make it to the ballot box without being on the receiving end of a beatdown.

      All we have gotten have been centuries of jackboots on our necks, centuries of raids and gallows. Centuries of torture and neglect in dungeons of filth. And you expect us to respect your civilization and your authority?

      You ignorant, naïve fool.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Jun 2020 @ 12:15pm

    Public access to encryption tech

    The coup has a lower risk of succeeding if the public has access to encryption tech. Can't have the resistance using secured communication channels.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Uriel-238 (profile), 23 Jun 2020 @ 4:14pm

      The public HAS access to encryption tech.

      The open-source crypto already available is pretty robust. The this isn't about terrorists and dissenters who care about passing secret coms. This is about ordinary people who can't be bothered.

      This is about the soccer mom going to work every day and chatting with her family on an iPhone.

      Because her business phone (provided it's a large enough company) is already locked down by the company MIS. And her college-student son is using a VPN and TOR to look at foreign porn, and then keeping it on an encrypted drive.

      The United States wants to unlock the phones of working proles.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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