Flak Over FBI and DEA Impersonations

The FBI and DEA's impersonation tactics have been facing a lot of criticism lately. First, there was the case of the cocaine defendant in New York who has filed a lawsuit to stop the DEA from impersonating her on Facebook. The DEA used photos and personal information from her seized cell phone to set up a fake Facebook account in order to trick her friends and associates into revealing incriminating information.

Then there was the disclosure a few days ago that in 2007, the FBI created a fake Associated Press article, put a spyware tool in it and sent it to the My Space account of a Seattle teen suspected of making bomb threats. [More...]

When he clicked on the custom made link to what he thought was a real news article, it activated the spy tool, allowing the FBI to obtain his IP address and track his location, get a search warrant for his house, and interview him (he confessed to making the threats and ultimately pleaded guilty.)

The case is in the news now because of an FOIA request by a reporter. Based on emails in the documents, it appeared that the FBI also made a bogus Seattle Times webpage to "host" its fake story, but the FBI denies this. Apparently, they are saying while the emails suggested using a Seattle Times as a cover, that part of the plan was scrapped after review. Before that disclosure, the Seattle Times reacted angrily:

We are outraged that the FBI, with the apparent assistance of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, misappropriated the name of The Seattle Times to secretly install spyware on the computer of a crime suspect,” said Seattle Times Editor Kathy Best. “Not only does that cross a line, it erases it,” she said.

“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,” Best said. “The FBI’s actions, taken without our knowledge, traded on our reputation and put it at peril.”

The affidavit for the warrant is on page 31 of this EFF version of the FOIA documents.

In geek talk, according to the documents received in response to the FOIA request, what the FBI did was have the Cryptologie and Electronic Analysis Unit(CEAU) of the Software Development Group (SDC) of the Operations Technology Division (OPD) "effectuate the remote delivery of a Computer Internet Protocol Address Verifier (CIPAV) to geophysically locate the suspect."

It's a complicated process, which begins when a state or federal law enforcement agency requests such help from the CEAU. The request goes up the chain of command, and if approved, it goes to an AUSA in the district who submits a request to the court for a warrant, supported by a probable cause affidavit. The affidavit tells the court what they are going to do but doesn't give details about the particular spy tool or how they intend to trick the target into activating it, since it wants to keep such specifics to itself. The court then enters an order granting the request and they're off to the races.

Codewords to look for in the order: "remote access search and surveillance (RASS)." Another email says, "we basically have 3 tools to locate a computer. Basic IPAV, Local Info and Local Info with Getter."

According to the documents, similar operations have been carried out in Cincinnati, Houston, Tampa, and St. Louis. One agent wrote in an email:

[T]his was one of many cases that CEAU/SDG was working on at the time, with successful deployments. In fact, CEAU has so many currently pending operations that I have borrowed an SSA from DITU to work an overseas matter.

The latest impersonation case making the news is in a gambling case in Nevada. The FBI caused internet access to be shut off at various intervals at three luxury villas in Las Vegas. When the residents complained, the FBI sent agents to the villa, disguised as repairmen, so they could get inside and gather evidence without a warrant.

Of course, the DEA and FBI have been impersonating workers from other companies for decades. I had cases in the 70's where DEA agents dressed in Fedex uniforms and driving Fedex trucks, delivered packages containing drugs shipped via Fedex. The difference may be that Fedex agreed to the practice.

Now that the FBI has expanded to faking news articles , journalists are up in arms over the impersonation issue, and we can expect to see them tweeting and reporting every instance of impersonation they come across. I, for one, welcome the exposure, even though none of these new stories surprise me. I also think they only reach the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

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  • Display: Sort:
    CEAU DEA SDC OPD CIPAV AUSA FBI... (5.00 / 1) (#1)
    by Mr Natural on Wed Oct 29, 2014 at 05:15:08 AM EST

    The only good acronym in the entire article?  FOIA

    As I'v said before the DOJ's (none / 0) (#2)
    by fishcamp on Wed Oct 29, 2014 at 06:34:15 AM EST
    alphabetical henchmen need to be reigned in.  But how do we do it without getting set up ourselves?

    We need to... (none / 0) (#4)
    by kdog on Wed Oct 29, 2014 at 01:53:00 PM EST
    find a couple hundred easily molded kindergarten aged kids to Manchurian Candidate for 20 years, then get them jobs within the various acronyms for tyranny, and then activate them to sabotage these maniacal organizations from within.

    Never mind, now I sound like a CIA arsehole.

    (Note to NSA, I'm always joking...always;)


    kdog, at my age we need a faster remedy... (5.00 / 1) (#8)
    by fishcamp on Wed Oct 29, 2014 at 02:31:36 PM EST
    NSA, he may be joking, but I'm not...

    Back to the drawing board... (5.00 / 1) (#9)
    by kdog on Wed Oct 29, 2014 at 02:42:17 PM EST
    I hope when I get to your age I can stop using the "I'm joking" disclaimer.

    Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose...and I like to think I still have another 10-20 good years to lose, and I'd hate to lose them to a black site dungeon.


    Spamma Jamma.... (5.00 / 1) (#7)
    by kdog on Wed Oct 29, 2014 at 02:16:17 PM EST
    or is it?  Maybe a FBI born supercalafragalisticexpialadoshus-ware uber-virus.


    Joke is On You... (none / 0) (#10)
    by ScottW714 on Wed Oct 29, 2014 at 03:20:42 PM EST
    ...if you clicked the link, it's the spyware download.

    So the NSA basically can track your movements in real life and on the net, why this, it is a sham so people think there every movement isn't being watched by the government ?

    Why aren't they going to the NSA for this information, why the spyware, and deception, it's not needed, they have a warrant and I am positive the NSA would oblige to let the FBI know the guy is taking a wiz at Hooligans and just snapped a picture of a funny joke on the wall and set it to 5 of his best buds, with a page of information on each of them, and their buds, and on and on.

    I have a hard time believing the FBI can't track down a MySpace member in 5 seconds on a bad day.  And who is so dumb as to think making a b-mb threat on the internet isn't going to result in an arrest.  I'm don't like typing the word because I know it's going to get someone's attention.

    My opinion of course.


    Have you seen the story about (5.00 / 3) (#11)
    by Anne on Wed Oct 29, 2014 at 03:30:53 PM EST
    former CBS reporter Sharyl Attkisson and the apparently very real possibility that the government hacked her computer?

    Attkisson says that she began experiencing problems using her computer and phone and first turned to a government source who said she was being hacked in a way so sophisticated that it was likely that the US government was responsible. Attkisson then informed CBS who hired a security firm which confirmed the earlier analysis that she was being hacked and the US government was a likely suspect.

    Not only was the government reportedly monitoring her activities but they were also apparently trying to make it seem as though she broke the law by inserting documents onto her computer.

       The breaches on Attkisson's computer, says this source, are coming from a "sophisticated entity that used commercial, nonattributable spyware that's proprietary to a government agency: either the CIA, FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency, or the National Security Agency (NSA)." Attkisson learns from "Number One" that one intrusion was launched from the WiFi at a Ritz Carlton Hotel and the "intruders discovered my Skype account handle, stole the password, activated the audio, and made heavy use of it, presumably as a listening tool."

        To round out the revelations of "Number One," he informs Attkisson that he'd found three classified documents deep inside her operating system, such that she'd never know they were even there. "Why? To frame me?" Attkisson asks in the book.

    While we already know that the Obama Administration has been spying on reporters, the accusation of hacking into a reporter's computer and inserting incriminating evidence is another issue entirely. It is a straight up crime. No novel interpretation of the Patriot Act or Espionage Act can justify planting evidence.

    Do you think there's any coincidence in the fact that she was one of the reporters responsible for the Benghazi story?

    If this is true - and it's no longer as hard to believe as it might have been a decade ago - this is no longer - and maybe it hasn't been for a while - about which party is in power, it's a matter of abuse of power, and those abuses are going to continue - and get worse - as long as no one is ever held accountable for them.

    I don't see any sign of accountability, does anyone else?

    We now have an impossibly (5.00 / 1) (#12)
    by jondee on Wed Oct 29, 2014 at 04:22:25 PM EST
    Byzantine system of watchers requiring an impossibly Byzantine system to watch the watchers.

    Given her past track record, and the (none / 0) (#15)
    by Mordiggian 88 on Thu Oct 30, 2014 at 08:47:37 AM EST
    Fact that she's selling a book about the liberal bias of CBS, perhaps her account should be take with a grain or two of salt:

    Sharyl Attkisson's new book shows the common interest between a discredited journalist trying to cash in on right-wing credibility and the conservative machine that wants its media worldview confirmed.

    Attkisson resigned in March after two decades at CBS News, reportedly in part because she believed the network had stymied her reporting due to "liberal bias." Staffers there reportedly characterized her work, which often focused on trumped-up claims of Obama administration misdeeds, as "agenda-driven," leading "network executives to doubt the impartiality of her reporting."

    In her forthcoming book, Stonewalled, Attkisson alleges that the press has been protecting Obama from scrutiny for ideological reasons. "Attkisson doesn't explicitly accuse CBS and the rest of the mainstream media of a pervasive liberal bias," writes Fox News' Howard Kurtz in a review. "But that view is clear from sheer accumulation of detail in her book."

    Based on press accounts, Attkisson's allegations of CBS News' bias rely largely on her own recollections of conversations she says she had with her former colleagues. The network declined Media Matters' request for comment, but one apparent subject of Attkisson's criticism has denied her account.

    Attkisson's credibility is central to determining whether to believe her claims. Given her history of conspiratorial claims and shoddy reporting -- including her false and baseless claim that Media Matters may have been paid to attack her -- it is difficult to take her story at face value. But one thing is clear: her message is very valuable to both right-wing media and Attkisson herself.

    Sharyl Attkisson's Stonewalled Tells Conservatives What They Want To Hear


    I wondered about these things myself, (none / 0) (#20)
    by Anne on Thu Oct 30, 2014 at 09:55:04 AM EST
    especially as soon as I saw "Benghazi" - but I'm kind of at the point where I think it's more possible that it did happen than that it didn't, simply because we keep finding more and more indication that these kinds of tactics are being used.

    And while I totally agree that Attkisson's credibility should be in play, I think the government's credibility should be as least as central - if not more so - to this whole thing as hers is.

    Could Attkisson be taking advantage of what we know is the government's intrusion into our privacy to make a claim the government will never do anything but deny?  I don't know - but I can say that I wouldn't accept the government's denial just on the basis of their say-so, either.

    Whether Attkisson is telling the truth, whether this ever happened to her, doesn't change what is, for me, the bottom line: those in charge of this vast security state apparatus are not being held accountable for anything.  


    I very much doubt her account (none / 0) (#21)
    by Mordiggian 88 on Thu Oct 30, 2014 at 09:59:05 AM EST
    especially since she doesn't have a report from a company or firm that specializes in computer security that documents her allegations as true.

    I do agree with the larger point, that the security state is amassing data about its' citizens without any overt justification, and that as Noam Chomsky remarked awhile back, acting like a government that is afraid of the very people it is suppose to be comprised of.


    I've been hesitant to mention this... (none / 0) (#22)
    by kdog on Thu Oct 30, 2014 at 11:06:31 AM EST
    but f&ck it, it's on topic.

    My work pc came down with the sniffles a few months back, the IT guy brings it to the shop and they said it had a virus/malware/whatever so embedded and advanced they could only assume it was government.  They'd never seen anything like it at the computer shop.  Damned if I know how I caught it, I'm fairly internet savvy and know not to clink random sh*t.  I kinda wondered if there was a connection to my TL habit and political speech.  


    I suppose (none / 0) (#3)
    by lentinel on Wed Oct 29, 2014 at 08:20:55 AM EST
    it's just me, but this kind of stuff doesn't do much to make me feel safe - if that is indeed the intent of these governmental agencies gone amuck. In fact, it makes me edgy.

    This article pretty much sums up much of what I have been feeling lately:

    "Obama makes Bushism the new normal"- by Dan Froomkin.

    We're doomed. (none / 0) (#13)
    by Chuck0 on Wed Oct 29, 2014 at 06:38:12 PM EST
    please stay on topic (none / 0) (#14)
    by Jeralyn on Wed Oct 29, 2014 at 08:11:51 PM EST
    it's not Obama. It's law enforcement and privacy and electronic surveillance.

    Maybe the worst (none / 0) (#16)
    by Reconstructionist on Thu Oct 30, 2014 at 08:49:22 AM EST
      FBI in Vegas

       Here, the agents lied to gain access to the premises by posing as reparirmen.

     Consent (to entry) is an exception to the warrant requirement, but it has to be voluntary consent and I don't think there is any question it's not voluntary if the person does not know the true identity and real purpose of the persons he is allowing in to his premises. I don't even see a gray area.

       Other examples present more challenging questions where a false identity is  used to lure people in as opposed to have the people let the agents in (in a cyber/virtual sense).

      I do think that if the phony internet site ruse is then used to  use malware  "enter" the target's computer you have a much stronger argument of illegal conduct by the agents that the conduct is illegal than if agents just set up a phony site and trick people into providing information.


    try again to link (none / 0) (#17)
    by Reconstructionist on Thu Oct 30, 2014 at 08:53:58 AM EST
    Also a big difference (none / 0) (#18)
    by Reconstructionist on Thu Oct 30, 2014 at 09:07:43 AM EST
      between what the agents did in Vega and past ruses of posing as delivery people is that when the agents posed as delivery people they did not directly use the false identity to gain entry and search premises.

      Delivering a package that the agent knows contains illegal contraband (because the package has previously been interdicted and examined) and then using that knowledge to obtain a search warrant (I believe probable cause exists that  drugs are in the house, because I delivered them to the house an occupant accepted the package and took it inside)is qualitatively difference than using a false identity to trick someone into letting you into the house without a warrant.

    I watched part of a trial (none / 0) (#19)
    by jbindc on Thu Oct 30, 2014 at 09:15:15 AM EST
    Where that happened.  Defendant accused of buying and possessing child p*rn.  FBI agent posed as mail man - delivered package containing videos.  Defendant signed for delivery and accepted package. Boom.  Arrested.