It’s against the law to impersonate federal agents, but apparently agents believe it’s fine to impersonate journalists.
Unbeknownst to the Associated Press, the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2007 created a fake AP news article in order to plant malware on the computer of a teen suspected of issuing bomb threats to Timberlake High School in Lacey, Wash.
The teen clicked on the article sent to his MySpace social media page, and the hacking software transmitted his Internet Protocol address and location to the FBI. (Initial reports said the link was to a bogus Seattle Times Web page, but that appears to be false.) He was arrested and eventually spent 90 days in juvenile detention.
So what’s the problem? What if he really was going to blow up a school that had to be evacuated eight times because of threats?
That’s the end-justifies-the-means rationale the FBI used when Christopher Soghoian, a technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union, revealed the scam on Monday.
Nobody wants such a tragedy, but we journalists also don’t want our independence and credibility compromised with sources or the public. We don’t want to be viewed as tools of law enforcement or purveyors of false information, for whatever reason. This is why news operations don’t willingly hand over reporters’ notes or photographers’ images to the police. It hurts our ability to do our jobs if the public views us as arms of law enforcement.
This can certainly make law enforcement’s job more difficult, but an independent, uncompromised press is worth preserving.
The existence of the FBI’s bomb-threat sting surfaced as a result of digging by civil libertarians, but all Americans should be concerned about the government’s increased technological capability and its willingness to use it. The vast data reservoir collected by the National Security Agency poses many potential problems. One fear is that government could tap it to retrace the electronic steps of journalists to discover anonymous sources and whistleblowers. Promises of confidentiality could be rendered meaningless.
We don’t know how extensive electronic snooping is. The FBI says impersonating journalists is rare. But we want the government to be mindful of the vital role an independent, credible press plays in open societies.
While federal agents may be able to rationalize each incident in the short term, they should be aware of the long-term damage caused by the cumulative erosion of public trust.
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