Internet Law

FBI faked Associated Press news story to identify teen suspect in high school bomb-threats case

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Seeking to download law enforcement malware onto the computer of a teenager suspected of making bomb threats against a Washington state high school, the FBI admittedly faked a news story.

Then the FBI planted the bogus article about the threats, which purported to have been published by the Associated Press, on the MySpace page of the 15-year-old suspect, the Seattle Times reports. When the teen clicked on the article, the malware sent his location and Internet Protocol address to the feds, resulting in his prosecution in state court.

The FBI also considered using an “email link in the style of The Seattle Times” with a headline “Technology savvy student holds Timberline High School hostage,” according to internal documents obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, but didn’t do so, a spokeswoman told the Times. Instead, it linked the fake AP story to the teen’s MySpace page.

Officials at both the AP and the Times expressed concern about the tactic, saying that it damages the credibility of journalists at all news organizations, the Times article says.

Executive director Trevor Timm of the Freedom of the Press Foundation wondered how frequently such tactics might be used.

“The FBI and Justice Department owe some answers to news organizations and the public: How often have they impersonated news organizations to send malware to suspects?” he said. “Do they regularly falsify news articles and impersonate media websites for their hacking targets? What other news organizations have they pretended to be? And how do they prevent innocent readers from clicking on these links?”

On Wednesday, it was reported that FBI agents working a sports-betting case turned off the Internet service at three luxury hotel villas in Las Vegas and then sent “repairmen” in to collect evidence. Earlier this month, it came out that a Drug Enforcement Administration agent set up a Facebook account using a woman’s name, photos from her cellphone and personal information without her consent in an effort to find suspects in a drug ring. The woman, Sondra Arquiett, filed a federal lawsuit against the government and the agent.

Hat tip: Daily Mail.

Updated Oct. 30 to note related previous and subsequent related coverage.

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