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FBI Uses Newspaper's Name To Send Spyware

It was already known that the FBI uses spyware to investigate people — that was clear in federal documents obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 2011. What hasn't been fully appreciated until now was the lengths to which the FBI will go to infect a target's computer.

"Presumably, your typical Nigerian scam email offering $10 million dollars isn't going to work," says Christopher Soghoian of the ACLU. "They need something that will convince people to click on that link. And I guess in this case, they went for vanity."

Digging through the EFF's documents, Soghoian found a 2007 case in which the FBI impersonated the Seattle Times to catch a suspect in Washington state.


"This was a fake article that was written about the target, and I guess they though that the target would be quite likely to click on a news article about him," Soghoian says.

The fake article described bomb threats at a Washington state high school, and the link was sent via MySpace to a juvenile whom the FBI suspected of making those threats. The boy was later arrested and suspected.

The Seattle Times found out about this yesterday, after being tipped off by Soghoian's tweets about what he'd found. Editor Kathy Best says the FBI's ruse risks breaking the "trust that Seattle Times has with its readers."

"Who's going to trust that we are who we say we are," she says. "It affects our ability to be a government watchdog, it affects our ability to be an effective news organization."

The Seattle office of the FBI does not deny it used the newspaper's name. It released a prepared statement saying in part, "We identified a specific subject of an investigation and used a technique that we deemed would be effective in preventing a possible act of violence in a school setting. 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."


Soghoian is not convinced the technique is rarely used, in part because the FBI has been reluctant to talk about its spyware program, and there have been no public hearings in Congress about the program.

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