In the midst of the digital age, more and more people are turning to the Internet to get their news. I bet you frequently visit the website of your local paper and maybe a few national outlets every week to stay informed about what's going on. And, like many, you trust that everything that appears on your favorite news site is the real deal. So, what would you say if I told you the FBI created a fake webpage and fake news story claiming to represent a major U.S. newspaper?
The situation occurred in 2007, but just came to light thanks to recently released documents. Back then, the FBI was trying to track down a suspect accused of making bomb threats against a local high school in Washington. The FBI created a fake Seattle Times webpage and story about the threats and sent the link to the suspect's MySpace page.
When the suspect clicked on the link, the hidden FBI software sent his location and Internet Protocol information to the agents. A juvenile suspect was identified and arrested June 14.
The FBI used CIPAV spyware software to track down the computer's IP address and location. It had a warrant to use the software to track down the suspect after receiving a tip from the public.
The Seattle Times is outraged because it feels the situation is an example of government overreach and could hurt the publication's credibility.
“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,” [Seattle Times Editor Kathy] Best said. “The FBI’s actions, taken without our knowledge, traded on our reputation and put it at peril.”
So, was the FBI justified when it created the bogus webpage without the Seattle Times' knowledge?
It's a tough question to answer. On the one hand, we want to make sure our communities stay safe. But, we also want to know that the press is free of government interference so that we can trust the news that's out there. The FBI, for its part, thinks this was the best way to keep people safe.
“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,” [Frank Montoya Jr., the special agent in charge of the FBI in Seattle] said.
In the end, I'm glad the FBI was able to capture the suspect before any bomb threats turned into reality. But, I hope it will consider using alternative methods to track down criminals in the future so that the public trust in our important news sources is not put at risk. This case did take place seven years ago, so law enforcement officers now have even more tools at their disposal to track down criminals online.