Recently uncovered documents now show that the FBI engaged in the warrantless collection of data on Reddit co-founder and “hacktivist” Aaron Swartz — and then later used that information against him in a completely unrelated case at a later date. The baseless collection of information on Americans without provocation is a blemish on our society to begin with, but to then use that information at a later date, in an unrelated investigation, is even worse. The FBI has long advocated for expanding its power to collect information on innocent Americans’ private communications, and it is not the only administrative agency looking to grow its authority.
The rise of the “fourth branch” of government (administrative agencies) has given the federal government a direct route to circumventing the constitutional rights of the American people — and the FBI’s targeting of Aaron Swartz is surely proof of that.
Swartz co-founded Reddit, a popular social media platform, and was a famed digital activist prior to his death-by-suicide in 2013.
Without a warrant
Nearly two years before the federal government would begin investigating Swartz’ activities, the FBI captured his email address during a counterterrorism investigation. While Swartz was most likely not their intended target, the FBI stored his information anyway — and retrieved it over a year later, when the agency was investigating him for another, unrelated charge.
In November 2008, the FBI would attempt to charge Swartz for downloading millions of court files from an online system known as PACER. However, officials would ultimately conclude that because those documents belonged to the public, no crime had actually been committed. But, they were determined to try and find something at that time.
Writing for Gizmodo, Dell Cameron reports;
Drawing from information published on Wikipedia and using investigative tools such as Accurint, FBI employees began quietly building a profile of the oft-described technology “wunderkind,” noting, for example, his involvement in the creation of the formatting language Markdown and RSS 1.0, and jotting down the various code frameworks that Swartz had helped to create and organizations that he had helped to found. Eventually, with all open source avenues exhausted, an FBI employee sat down at a computer terminal that, to most people, would appear plucked straight from the 1980s. The employee ran a search using the bureau’s automated case support system, a portal to the motherlode of FBI investigative files.
Ultimately, FBI employees found a case number linked to Swartz, 315T-HQ-C1475879. Those first three digits told them that Swartz’s domain was “linked” to an international terrorism investigation, though not exactly how. The FBI then tried to use this information in the criminal case it was building against Swartz at a later time. In 2011, the government went after him for downloading millions of articles and documents from JSTOR, an expansive digital library of academic journals. The investigation led Swartz to take his own life in 2013.
As Cameron explains, “That any information about Swartz was collected during an Al Qaeda investigation — only to be retrieved nearly two years later for totally unrelated purposes — adds a familiar and sympathetic face to a controversial procedure in intelligence gathering commonly referred to as a ‘backdoor search.’”
Backdoor search tactics are highly controversial; the FBI is using a legal loophole to go about collecting and storing data on Americans not accused of crimes, and then using that information in other investigations which are not related to terrorism. This practice is considered unconstitutional by many.
The details on how the FBI came to obtain Swartz’s email remain a bit fuzzy, but the unwarranted collection of data on an American citizens should be concerning to all.