FBI made fake newspaper website to trick suspect

The FBI wrote a fake newspaper story and planted it on a fabricated Seattle Times website in order to infect a suspect’s computer with tracking software in 2007, according to federal documents.

Documents uncovered by the Electronic Frontier Foundation show that the bureau created a fake Associated Press story to plant on the phony website to target a teenager suspected of making bomb threats to a local high school.

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The bureau infected the suspect’s computer with malicious software in order to “geophysically locate” the suspect, it described in the documents.

The bogus AP article had the headline “Bomb threat at high school downplayed by local police department” and was contained in a link “in the style of the Seattle Times,” according to one FBI email. The link was sent to the suspect’s MySpace account.

Both the Seattle Times and AP were furious at the news.

“We are outraged that the FBI, with the apparent assistance of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, misappropriated the name of The Seattle Times to secretly install spyware on the computer of a crime suspect,” Editor Kathy Best said in a statement reported by the newspaper.

“Not only does that cross a line, it erases it,” she added.

“The FBI’s actions, taken without our knowledge, traded on our reputation and put it at peril.”

An AP spokesman, Paul Colford, said the news service is “extremely concerned” by the FBI’s actions, which he called “unacceptable.”

“This ploy violated AP’s name and undermined AP’s credibility,” Colford added.

The FBI defended its use of the fake story and website, which it called necessary to stop a possible act of violence.

The special agent in charge of the FBI’s Seattle division, Frank Montoya, said the action “had the goal of preventing a tragic event like what happened at Marysville and Seattle Pacific University,” referring to two recent shootings.

“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,” he added in a statement shared with The Hill. “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.”  

Documents show that the bureau obtained a warrant before deploying the tracking tool.

According to the documents, the FBI was targeting someone who sent multiple bomb threats to a high school in Lacy, Wash., prompting a series of evacuations.

One suspect was described by teachers, the FBI said, “as a self-proclaimed computer hacker that routinely bypasses the school computer security measures.”

The spyware led to the arrest of a 15-year-old student who was apprehended at his home.

The documents about The Seattle Times incident were contained in a larger trove about the FBI’s use of the software tool to track suspects, known as a Computer and Internet Protocol Address Verifier.

This story was updated at 12:36 p.m.