When The FBI Shows Up At Your Door About Your Reporting, That's Intimidation
from the yikes dept
Having the government show up at your door to ask some questions about your reporting can be extremely unnerving. Zack Whittaker, the top notch cybersecurity reporter for TechCrunch got to experience the fun of that when the FBI showed up at his door over a year after he had published a story about a hacker dumping thousands of Mexican embassy documents from Guatemala after the Mexican embassy left the data exposed online.
As with many situations involving reporting on hacks and leaks, rather than focus on those actually responsible (often those who left the information exposed), law enforcement and the powers that be… often target the journalists. We saw that recently in Missouri where the governor called reporters hackers (and “fake news”) for ethically disclosing that the state’s elementary school agency had left teacher and administrator social security numbers exposed — something the Department of Elementary and Secondary Educationapologized for weeks later (though it didn’t apologize to the journalists).
For Whittaker, the experience was reasonably concerning:
I contacted Mexicoâ€™s consulate in New York for comment, as is standard practice when reporting a story. A spokesperson said the Mexican government took the matter â€œvery seriously.â€ We published our story, and that seemed to be the end of it.
The FBI knock at my door a year later suggested it wasnâ€™t. I declined to speak with the agents and closed the door.
After we published our story the Mexican government requested the help of the U.S. Department of Justice through diplomatic channels to investigate the hack and presumably try to identify the hacker. Because I had contact with the hacker, that must have made me a subject of interest to the Mexican authorities, hence the visit a year on.
A month after the house call, the Mexican government provided the FBI with a list of written questions it wanted us to answer, many of which were already answered in the story. Our response to the DOJ declined to provide anything more than what we had already published.
However, as Zack notes, even if he knew he hadn’t done anything wrong, all of this is incredibly unnerving. Legal threats (unfortunately, and often ridiculously) now come with the territory of being a journalist, but the intimidation factor is very real — and that can be super damaging for better informing the public. Indeed, it’s often why the powerful — be they governments or just wealthy people and companies — make use of such intimidation tactics all the time:
Weâ€™ve rebuffed spurious legal demands before, but having federal agents on your doorstep simply for doing your job is certainly a new one for me. There has been no suggestion of wrongdoing, though itâ€™s unsettling not knowing what view Mexico would take if I ever stepped foot on its soil.
But itâ€™s the legal threats and demands that donâ€™t make it to print that can have the most damage. Legal demands inherently have a silencing effect. Sometimes they succeed. Journalism can be risky and the newsrooms donâ€™t always win. Left unchecked, legal threats can have a chilling effect that stifles both security research and journalism by making it legally toxic to work. That means the world is less informed and sometimes less secure.