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 Mexico’s consulate in New York for comment, as is standard practice when reporting a story. A spokesperson said the Mexican government took the matter “very seriously.” We published our story, and that seemed to be the end of it.

The FBI knock at my door a year later suggested it wasn’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:

We’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 it’s unsettling not knowing what view Mexico would take if I ever stepped foot on its soil.

But it’s the legal threats and demands that don’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 don’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.

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Comments on “When The FBI Shows Up At Your Door About Your Reporting, That's Intimidation”

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24 Comments
Anonymoussays:

It's happened to Cryptome several times

John Young, operator of cryptome.org, occasionally posts reports of such law enforcement attempts at intimidation:

"Young says the posting about the Japanese [Public Security Investigation] agency prompted a phone call from the FBI in 2000, relaying a request from Japan’s Justice Ministry that the names [of Japan’s spies] be removed. Young recalls that the agents told him the disclosure would have been illegal in Japan, but was not a crime in the U.S., and the names still remain viewable on Cryptome.
Another exchange with the FBI came in November 2003, according to Young, when two agents paid him a visit to discuss recent Cryptome postings intended to expose national security gaps. The postings included maps and photos of rail tunnels and gas lines leading toward New York’s Madison Square Garden, where the Republican National Convention was to be held the next year.
The agents were polite, Young said, and made no assertion that he had broken any law."

The agents reportedly dislike it when people publish their names, and have asked Young to avoid doing that. He does not honor these requests.

Anonymoussays:

two sides

What am I misunderstanding here? The FBI is investigating the case, and realizes the reporter may have more information than what was published, so travels to the reporter’s home to ask if they could perhaps have a discussion about the case, and see if there’s anything the reporter knows that could help them. The reporter somehow views this as intimidation despite them leaving when requested and them not contacting him again.

The published articles mention the reporter being intimated by "legal threats", but there’s no mention of any threats being made, legal or otherwise.

Unless there’s more to this than has been published, it sounds like the reporter is simply creating "news" about himself over nothing.

Stephen T. Stonesays:

What am I misunderstanding here?

The feds could’ve called the reporter over the phone to either ask those questions or arrange a proper face-to-face meeting with him. Agents showing up at his home without warning feels like they’re saying “we’re watching you now, so you better not piss us off” without actually saying it.

Uriel-238says:

A show of force

This reminds me very much of the Dotcom affair, given that Dotcom’s estate was raided to collect him.

As he noted early on in the proceedings, he drives to work routinely. His movement patterns are not random or concealed, and if they wanted to arrest him without all the tactical theater, it would be easy enough to do so at his work parking lot.

Anonymoussays:

Re: two sides

Normally, if you wanted to talk to a journalist (or literally anyone else) about their job, you would call/email them at their place of employment and request a meeting.

Showing up randomly at their house instead says that
1) the government considers this a matter for their private, rather than professional, identity (or at least, wishes it to appear that their private life is on the hook) and
2) that the government considers this concerning enough to require disseminating their personal address to an unknown number of law enforcement personnel, who may or may not have been told anything other than "this person is of interest to the FBI."

Do you think it would equally as un-intimidating if a couple men showed up at the local prosecutor’s home to ask some questions about the upcoming trial of Al Capone? After all, they left when requested and didn’t contact him again.

TKnarrsays:

Re: two sides

What am I misunderstanding here?

How would you feel if, out of the blue, a couple of big, muscular guys in biker leathers and dark glasses showed up on your doorstep wanting to talk to you about some work your employer was having you do and the vendors you were working with? They want names, phone numbers, contract details, delivery dates, all kinds of things they have no business asking about but are asking about anyway, and even if they aren’t breaking out the baseball bats yet they’re being really really insistent about you answering their questions.

DeComposersays:

Re: two sides

It doesn’t matter what the FBI wanted to ask him (which, as the article clearly states, was mostly answered in the news story that had been published a year ago).

What does matter is that journalism is a constitutionally protected activity and the right to protect journalistic sources has been upheld repeatedly at every level, all the way up to the Supreme Court.

The reason journalism is a constitutionally protected activity is (among other things) to hold governments, officials, businesses, and individuals accountable for their actions. Without the protections guaranteed by the first amendment, democracy would have died long ago.

That One Guysays:

A threat need not be verbal

A mugger doesn’t have to show you the gun they may or may not have it can simply be implied that it sure would be unpleasant were a monetary transaction with them not be voluntarily engaged in.

Likewise the FBI showing up at your house just to ‘ask a few questions’ is, whether they meant it or not, going to be seen as a threat. ‘We’re watching you and know where you live, so if you don’t want our attention you’d better watch what you say/do.’

That Anonymous Cowardsays:

tsk Mike… have an extra space for here.
Educationapologized for

We want you to help us, but we’re going to do it in a way where you feel you have no options but to help us and if we don’t like the answers we’ll throw you in prison for a very long time…
because you reported on a story…
not because you did anything wrong, but people in power want answers and they want them now.

The fact when they got around to sending questions to be answered we already covered in the story raises the issue of LEO’s ignoring the job of actual research & just expecting it to be handed to them.

Anonymoussays:

Re:

Then you screw up the prosecutors by breaking into the US Attorney (in this case) office computer network and erasing the files related to the case.

I would love to see the face, in such an instance, on the prosecutor assigned to the case when we went to pull up his folder on the office computer network and found everything GONE.

That One Guysays:

We'll call that 'Plan M' for 'Monumentally Stupid'

You mean the face of a US attorney who just had a massive criminal act committed right in front of them now has two prosecutions to work on, one of them an absolute slam dunk and the other trivial to recover from if they make use of even the most basic of data backups?

Yeah, pretty sure you would not in fact be thrilled to see the look on their face in that moment if you were stupid enough to hack a US attorney’s computer and destroyed evidence related to another case.

naschsays:

Re: Re:

Then you screw up the prosecutors by breaking into the US Attorney (in this case) office computer network and erasing the files related to the case.

I don’t think it would be the prosecutors you would be screwing up. But please go ahead and do that and let us know how it goes if you get internet access in the federal slammer.

18 U.S. Code § 1519. Destruction, alteration, or falsification of records in Federal investigations and bankruptcy – 20 years

https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/1519

18 U.S. Code § 1030 – Fraud and related activity in connection with computers – 20 years

https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/1030

I’m sure a prosecutor could come up with some other applicable sections.

TKnarrsays:

Re: Re:

Really stupid idea for a lot of reasons. In a case like this deleting the evidence is the last thing you want to do anyway. What you want is all of the evidence, including documentation of the visits by the authorities and exactly what they said/did during those visits to be in the hands of one or more attorneys well-known enough that the prosecutors aren’t willing to attack them directly, with instructions on where to send that evidence so that, should anything untoward happen to you, all the details the authorities don’t want getting out will end up in the headlines shortly thereafter. The authorities want the whole matter to be forgotten, make the path of least resistance be for them to not hassle you anymore.

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