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Associated Press lawsuit challenges boundaries of law enforcement deception

The Associated Press has sued the US Justice Department over the FBI's failure to turn over public records related to its online impersonation of the media company during a 2007 sting operation.

A cop might go undercover as a minor soliciting sex on the Internet in order to capture a sex offender, or a DEA agent might impersonate a heroin addict to conduct a controlled drug buy as part of evidence building against narcotics traffickers. But what happens when police impersonate a journalist?


The answer, at least in the case of the Associated Press, is to sue. The AP is bringing legal action against the FBI after a sting operation that involved impersonating an AP journalist and creating a false AP news story as part of a sting operation that involved a 15-year-old bomb threat suspect in Washington, who the FBI emailed a link to a fake AP news story. When the suspect clicked the link, it downloaded surveillance software to his computer that allowed the FBI to track him.

Related article: Dirty FBI Agent Gets 5 Years for International Bribery Scheme

When the news of the sting broke, AP filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act in the hopes of getting more information, but the government has said they could be waiting almost two years for the materials. The AP filed suit, accusing the government of freezing them out.

Under current law, there is nothing that explicitly prohibits law enforcement from impersonating journalists in sting operations. While the AP’s lawsuit doesn’t allege the government is violating the First Amendment by impersonating a journalist, it does bring up concerns about how the practice could jeopardize the credibility of news organizations.

Do you think law enforcement should be allowed to impersonate journalists in sting operations? Are there other professions that might also be ethically questionable for law enforcement to impersonate? What are the legal implications of this lawsuit for the AP and the FBI?


The lawsuit was filed jointly by the AP and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) with the US district court for the district of Columbia.

In the suit, the AP said it discovered in October 2014 that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had "masqueraded as a member of the news media -- specifically, as the AP" to trick a suspect into downloading spyware to his computer.

It said the FBI, which had a search warrant, used the malware -- known as a Computer and Internet Protocol Address Verifier, or CIPAV -- to pinpoint the whereabouts of the 15-year-old suspect, who had allegedly made a series of bomb threats against a high school in Washington state.

Related article: Is the FBI spying on you, too?

Joe Mullin writes for ArsTechnica, August 27, 2015:

In the sting operation, the FBI sent a private message to the suspect's MySpace account with links to fake news stories.

When the suspect clicked on the stories, which bore the headlines "Bomb threat at high school downplayed by local police department" and "Technology savvy student holds Timberline High School hostage," he unwittingly downloaded the spyware.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday, says the FBI attributed those fake news stories to the media company.

The AP and the RCFP also are demanding that the Justice Department and the FBI document all instances, and under what circumstances, they have impersonated members of the news media to obtain information for their investigations.

The AP submitted a Freedom of Information Act request last year for documents related to the sting operation, which was discovered in documents obtained through a separate FOIA request by a different organization.

The FBI has failed to provide those documents, the AP says.

Christopher Soghoian, the ACLU principal technologist said he felt the move was as big of a violation of public trust as the sham vaccination program that the U.S. government famously ran in Pakistan to gather intelligence about Osama bin Laden's whereabouts.

"Impersonating the press is just as outrageous as impersonating doctors. The press plays such a vital role in our democracy and if people believe that clicking on a link to a newspaper is going to get them infected with FBI malware, they may be hesitant to read certain articles," he said.

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