On Friday, March 26th 2010, the San Francisco office of the FBI received a copy of a video that had been removed from YouTube. The video showed a man making serious threats against a US Congressman and his family. Apparently, this was not the first threatening video this man had uploaded, either.
By the next afternoon, the FBI had the man, who lived in Pennsylvania, in custody.
This case is one shining example of law enforcement’s ability to track and catch cybercriminals. How did the FBI do it?
It was really quite simple. They sent an “Emergency Disclosure Request” to Google asking for the IP address of the man who had uploaded the video (Google owns YouTube). The FBI then took this address to Verizon, issued an “Emergency Situation Disclosure Request by Law Enforcement,” and Verizon turned over the subscriber information attached to that IP address. They were then able to arrest the man at his home.
While we’re all glad the FBI can so efficiently catch dangerous criminals, it’s natural to also feel a bit uncomfortable with the story described above. It shows without a doubt the government’s ability to violate your privacy if necessary. So the question is, could this happen to you?
The FBI has recently begun pressing in earnest for a law that would require Internet Service Providers to save records of which sites their customers visit for two years. This would dramatically help law enforcement with investigations of child pornography and other serious crimes. However, it may also feel a bit like Big Brother monitoring our internet usage.
Or does it? Truth is, there’s been a similar law in effect for phone companies since 1986, and we’re not yet living in fear of 1984’s telescreens. Additionally, this new law would not apply to content data, just to origin and destination information. So the FBI would not be able to see our emails, just our websites. What all of this means is that the online tracking ability of the FBI and the possibility of this new law are not much of a problem for anyone using YouTube for the usual purposes, that is, sports highlights and cute animal videos.
Image courtesy of PIAZZA del POPOLO
ars technica, How the FBI busted one YouTube nutjob in under a day
TPM LiveWire, Man Charged with Threatening to Kill Rep. Eric Cantor