FBI’s old dirty tricks are back to haunt the agency after documents obtained by the Electronic Frontier foundation (EFF) revealed the agency impersonated Seattle Times news agency in an effort to nab a 15 year old offender in 2007. Seattle Times editor Kathy Best based said she’s “outraged” that US top cops used a bogus webpage to transmit a spyware onto a suspect’s computer system.
“We are outraged that the FBI, with the apparent assistance of the US Attorney’s Office, misappropriated the name of The Seattle Times to secretly install spyware on the computer of a crime suspect,” said Best. “Not only does that cross a line, it erases it.”
The FBI reportedly sneaked a Computer & Internet Protocol Address Verifier (CIPAV) spying program into the computer of a 15year old high school student. CIPAV collected and transmitted information that helped investigators arrest and draft charges against the Seattle Boy. He pleaded guilty to sending bomb threats to Timberline High School in 2007.
In the clandestine plan, the FBI sent a bogus Seattle Times article link to Myspace account used by the suspect. The link which directed the suspect to make-shift Seattle Times webpage hosted by the FBI, secretly installed a CIPAV spyware that transmitted information such as computer’s IP, running programs, browsing history, registered computer name, operating system and other files in the suspect’s computer system.
Christopher Soghoian who unearthed the eight year old scam believes “the ends don’t justify the means. I’m not saying that the FBI shouldn’t be investigating people who threaten to bomb schools. But impersonating the media is a really dangerous line to cross,” said the principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union. He termed FBI’s actions as “irresponsible” and meant to undermine the credibility of Seattle Times, an opinion seconded by Kathy Best.
“Our reputation and our ability to do our job as a government watchdog are based on trust. Nothing is more fundamental to that trust than our independence — from law enforcement, from government, from corporations and from all other special interests,” added Best. “The FBI’s actions, taken without our knowledge, traded on our reputation and put it at peril.”
Predictably, the FBI defended its ploy by evoking the ‘greater good’ phrase, a refrain used by government agencies as their first line of defense. “Every effort we made in this investigation had the goal of preventing a tragic event like what happened at Marysville and Seattle Pacific University,” FBI Agent Frank Montoya Jr. told Seattle’s The Stranger magazine.
According to the FBI, impersonating the Seattle Times is just one of the techniques available in its toolkit but used in very rare circumstances. “We identified a specific subject of an investigation and used a technique that we deemed would be effective in preventing a possible act of violence in a school setting,” said Montoya. “Use of that type of technique happens in very rare circumstances and only when there is sufficient reason to believe it could be successful in resolving a threat. We were fortunate that information provided by the public gave us the opportunity to step in to a potentially dangerous situation before it was too late.”
FBI spokesperson Ayn Dietrich-Williams also defended the agency behavior, describing it as Solomonic moment in the daily life of the agency which require choosing the lesser evil. “I’m sure you’ll understand that in order to safeguard the FBI’s ability to effectively detect, disrupt, and dismantle threats to the public, we must be judicious in how we discuss investigative techniques.”
However, not everybody agrees with the ‘necessary evil’ explanation given by the FBI. Security experts says such a ploy compromise the security and privacy of the very institutions the agency swore to defend. Kathy Best on her part hopes the incidence was only a one time mistake by the Agency “We hope that this mistake in judgment by the FBI was a one-time aberration and not a symptom of a deeper lack of respect for the role of a free press in society,” Best said.
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