When the DEA created a phony Facebook profile for its snitch, Sondra Prince, there were howls of protest. Sure, it was wrong to impersonate someone without their knowledge, but it’s both hard and, frankly, more than a bit disingenuous, to get too bent out of shape about the government taking liberties with a cooperator. That’s what it means to be a cooperator, you Pollyannas.
But when the Seattle Times learned that the government secretly used its identity as part of a scheme to plant spyware on a suspect’s computer, it was furious.
Seven years ago, the FBI used a kind of spyware known as a CIPAV to track down and arrest a 15-year-old hacker who was sending bomb threats to a high school near Olympia. Old news for privacy watchdogs. But today, ACLU analyst Christopher Soghoian trawled through an arcane set of the bureau’s records and came across something startling: in order to get the suspect’s computer infected with the spyware, the documents suggest that the FBI sent a message to him that masqueraded as an e-mail from The Seattle Times.
“Here is the email link in the style of the Seattle Times,” wrote one FBI agent, whose name is redacted. “Below is the news article we would like to send containing the CIPAV,” wrote another. The e-mail includes a message, headline, link, and subscription information all purporting to represent an Associated Press article carried online by The Seattle Times.
Bits of Schadenfreude aside, largely due to the fact that such subterfuge and scheming by the government is reported with some frequency, yet doesn’t achieve “furious” status from the media until it’s their name on the email. It may not be good when it’s someone else, but it’s especially outrageous when it’s them? Well, sure. Why should journalists be any different than the rest of us.
The editor of The Seattle Times, Kathy Best, says they just learned about this and are seeking answers from the FBI and the US Attorney’s Office. “We are outraged that the FBI misappropriated the name of The Seattle Times to secretly install spyware on the computer of a crime suspect,” Best says in an e-mailed statement. “Not only does that cross the line, it erases it… 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.”
By “one-time aberration,” she no doubt means that her paper’s name was only used once. Not all papers. Not all lies. Just the Seattle Times. When it’s their name, it’s special. And she’s quite right that it not only crosses the line, but erases it. Of course, so too does the paper when it reports straight from government press releases, without either investigation or critical thought, to smear someone the government wants smeared.
But this isn’t meant as a criticism of journalists or newspapers, even though they consciously avoid the very same questions and issues when it’s not their ox being gored and they could fairly be called the government’s mouthpiece. No, if the Fourth Estate is going to fulfill the responsibility that justifies its vaulted First Amendment status, it must be free from taint, untouched by government manipulation. I’ve personally just deleted all the New York Times emails offering me deals for home delivery, just in case.
But the Electronic Frontier Foundation reports that the government has outrageously abused its authority under Section 213 of the USA PATRIOT Act.
Out of the 3,970 total requests from October 1, 2009 to September 30, 2010, 3,034 were for narcotics cases and only 37 for terrorism cases (about .9%). Since then, the numbers get worse. The 2011 report reveals a total of 6,775 requests. 5,093 were used for drugs, while only 31 (or .5%) were used for terrorism cases. The 2012 report follows a similar pattern: Only .6%, or 58 requests, dealt with terrorism cases. The 2013 report confirms the incredibly low numbers. Out of 11,129 reports only 51, or .5%, of requests were used for terrorism. The majority of requests were overwhelmingly for narcotics cases, which tapped out at 9,401 requests.
We needed it to stop the terrorists, and so Congress complied because terrorists. And it was used for everything but terrorists, because, well, drugs are bad too, right?
And the New York Times reports that the Postal Service is pretty bad too.
In a rare public accounting of its mass surveillance program, the United States Postal Service reported that it approved nearly 50,000 requests last year from law enforcement agencies and its own internal inspection unit to secretly monitor the mail of Americans for use in criminal and national security investigations.
The audit found that in many cases the Postal Service approved requests to monitor an individual’s mail without adequately describing the reason or having proper written authorization.
The list goes on, and on. And on. So much so that it’s mundane to learn that the government is covertly sneaking and peeking at pretty much anything they want to, using whatever means is available to do so, because they’re the good guys and they protect us.
But just out of curiosity, what’s the lead article in today’s Seattle Times?
Would that story, “Sheriff: Victims invited to lunch, then shot,” come straight out of a press conference by Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary? It certainly looks that way. So perhaps the problem isn’t being used by the government, as much as it is being used without the government first asking for permission?
A search of the Seattle Times fails to reveal any mention of the EFF or the Postal Service shenanigans. I guess some things outrage Kathy Best, and others not so much.