In 2007, an FBI agent pretended to be a journalist from the Associated Press to trick an anonymous suspect into clicking on an e-mail link that installed malware to track the guy. This was all done to catch a guy who launched cyberattacks and sent in bomb threats to a Seattle high school.
The Associated Press is not happy. They’ve already had to deal with the Department of Justice quietly seizing their phone records in order to track down a leaker, which obviously serves (possibly deliberately) to scare away other potential federal leakers or whistleblowers. Now they have to worry that they’ll be unable to interact with anybody engaged in any sort of sketchy behavior if they think they’re actually corresponding with a federal agent.
The New York Times took note of this behavior, as well as another incident where the FBI, unable to get a warrant to search Las Vegas hotel rooms to investigate possible illegal gambling, shut down their targets’ Internet and then posed as repairmen in order to gain access. In an editorial, the Times worried that these deceptive methods would lead to wider constitutional abuses.
FBI Director James Comey responded that their Associated Press impersonation was completely legal, and besides, they didn’t really publish an actual story anywhere posing as the press. Only their suspect interacted with the fake reporter. But even though it was completely legal then, maybe there would be more oversight now, Comey admits:
That technique was proper and appropriate under Justice Department and F.B.I. guidelines at the time. Today, the use of such an unusual technique would probably require higher level approvals than in 2007, but it would still be lawful and, in a rare case, appropriate.
So it was legal at the time, even though we’ve now put in more steps before they can do this, so what’s everybody worried about?
The Associated Press and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is not having it. They’ve sent a letter to the Department of Justice demanding they stop impersonating the media. Via CNN:
“The utilization of news media as a cover for delivery of electronic surveillance software is unacceptable. This practice endangers the media’s credibility and creates the appearance that it is not independent of the government,” it said.
“It undermines media organizations’ ability to independently report on law enforcement. It lends itself to the appearance that media organizations are compelled to speak on behalf of the government.” …
“The FBI may have intended this false story as a trap for only one person. However, the individual could easily have reposted this story to social networks, distributing to thousands of people, under our name, what was essentially a piece of government disinformation.”
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