Earlier this month, the FBI’s Los Angeles field office revealed it had charged four men over alleged involvement in an al-Qaeda inspired terror cell based in and around California. Since 2010, the men had, according to the feds, been plotting ways to help provide “material support” to terrorists in order to kill American targets in Afghanistan. The FBI’s complaint against the group was under seal until it was released a few days ago, and it has since attracted attention from activists because of some of the shadowy law enforcement techniques it reveals.
The document shows that aside from using the traditional method of paying a “confidential source,” the FBI was also trying to infiltrate the group electronically. Using an “online covert employee,” the feds posed as terrorism sympathisers in order to gauge the potential threat posed by certain individuals. In one case, they say they got a 21-year-old Mexico-born man to admit he was keen to pursue jihad in order to “stop the oppressors.” Other sections of the complaint detail how the FBI was somehow able to obtain audio and video recordings of Skype conversations in which their confidential informant participated. Given that it remains unclear whether it is technically possible to wiretap Skype due to its encryption, it’s possible that the FBI had installed some sort of spyware directly onto the terrorists’ computer in order to bypass any eavesdropping barriers.
But perhaps most interesting is how the feds monitored social networks. One part of the complaint, headed “DEFENDANTS’ SOCIAL MEDIA,” lists Islamist content the men had “liked”, “shared”, commented on or posted on their Facebook pages. The FBI details how Sohiel Omar Kabir, a U.S. citizen who appears to be the alleged ringleader of the group, posted “photographs of himself, non-extremist content, radical Islamist content, and items reflecting a mistrust of mainstream media, abuses by the government, conspiracy theories, abuses by law enforcement, and the war in Afghanistan.” It adds, in reference to two of the other suspects, “Kabir has ‘shared’ several postings with Santana and/or Deleon, both of whom have ‘liked’ or commented on several other postings by Kabir.”
This illustrates how important social media behavior is becoming for law enforcement agencies as they try to build cases against individuals. But it will also raise concerns about how social network monitoring could have a chilling effect on free speech, especially if “liking” or sharing any controversial content on Facebook becomes viewed by authorities as inherently suspicious or criminal. Other countries have already had to face up to controversy over how their law enforcement agencies monitor and penalize social network users. Earlier this month, for instance, two women were arrested in India: one for posting an “offensive” comment on Facebook about a recently deceased political leader, the other for “liking” it. The women have since been released on bail and, the New York Times reports, a police investigation into why they were arrested in the first place has been ordered.
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