scorecardThe FBI said it used Instagram, Etsy, and LinkedIn to track down a protester in Philadelphia accused of setting a police car on fire
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The FBI said it used Instagram, Etsy, and LinkedIn to track down a protester in Philadelphia accused of setting a police car on fire

Lisa Eadicicco   

The FBI said it used Instagram, Etsy, and LinkedIn to track down a protester in Philadelphia accused of setting a police car on fire
Tech4 min read
  • The FBI was able to track down a Philadelphia woman accused of setting fire to a police vehicle through Instagram, Etsy, and LinkedIn, it said in charging documents earlier reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer.
  • After viewing footage of the woman from a television helicopter, agents said they zoomed in on photos and videos of the protest posted on Instagram and Vimeo to track down the woman.
  • They said they traced the T-shirt she had worn to a specific shop on Etsy.
  • Civil rights advocates have long been worried about the use of social media to identify and track activists, and the court filings raise new concerns over police canvassing social media to identify and track down protesters from demonstrations that have erupted in the wake of George Floyd's death.
  • The woman's lawyer compared the agents' methods to COINTELPRO, a secret FBI program aimed at surveilling and infiltrating the civil rights and feminist movements of the 1950s and '60s that was largely found to have violated First and Fourth Amendment rights.

Federal authorities were able to identify a participant in Philadelphia's George Floyd protests accused of setting a police car on fire by following clues discovered on Instagram, Etsy, and LinkedIn, according to court filings reviewed by the Philadelphia Inquirer.

According to the documents, after television news helicopters captured footage of a masked woman apparently setting fire to a police vehicle on May 30, the authorities scoured images of protesters on Instagram to identify a woman they suspected of setting the fire. Agents said they then found an Etsy shop that sold the T-shirt the woman in the photo was wearing, and linked a review to a woman in Philadelphia, finally identifying her place of work on LinkedIn.

The Philadelphia Inquirer describes the chain of events that led the FBI to identifying the woman as 33-year-old Lore Elisabeth Blumenthal, who now faces two counts of felony arson, according to NBC News.

The FBI zoomed in on photos and videos of the scene on Instagram and Vimeo, according to the report, which led them to spot a peace sign tattoo on Blumenthal's right forearm. After scouring other images, the federal agents were clearly able to read the text printed on her T-shirt, which read: "Keep the Immigrants. Deport the Racists."

It turns out that specific shirt had only been sold on one shop on Etsy, the report says, where agents discovered Blumenthal's review of the shop. Her Etsy user profile indicated that she was located in Philadelphia, and performing a Google search of her user name led agents to Lore's Poshmark account, where they discovered her handle was "lore-elisabeth."

Agents said they were able to find Lore's LinkedIn profile after Googling that handle, which eventually led them to discovering her massage studio. The studio's website featured videos of Lore on the job, showing the peace sign tattoo that agents had noticed in the Instagram and Vimeo photos and videos.

Civil rights advocates have long raised about the use of social media to identify and target activists. In 2016, for example, the American Civil Liberties Union flagged that Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram were providing data to Geofeedia, an analytics product that had been marketed to law enforcement as a way to track protesters. The social media companies cut off Geofeedia's access to their data following the investigation.

The chain of events also raises questions about law enforcement's use of social media to find and identify protesters. Police have been asking social media users for help identifying people shown in photos and videos during the George Floyd protests in recent weeks, which has prompted concerns that doing so could mistakenly target people who look similar to those shown in the video.

"They may create a false perception about what kinds of people are involved in what kinds of protest activities," Jonathan Simon, a criminal justice law professor at UC Berkeley School of Law, said to CNET.

On May 31, fans of Korean pop rallied against the Dallas Police Department's request for people to report "illegal activity from the protests" by instead flooding the department's app with "fancams," or short videos of K-pop idols performing.

Police, however, have said monitoring social media has been helpful during investigations. Sgt. Ben Hoster, a spokesman for the Scottsdale Police Department in Arizona, told CNET that social media was one of the "main reasons" authorities were able to charge YouTube star Jake Paul with criminal trespassing and unlawful assembly earlier this month. Video footage indicated Paul was present at an Arizona shopping mall where looting and vandalism occurred, although Paul said in a tweet that he was not involved in such acts.

Paul Hetznecker, Blumenthal's lawyer, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that while social media has become a powerful tool for spreading awareness of the protest, it's also making it easier for law enforcement to track such demonstrations.

"Social media has fueled much of the protests, and has also become a fertile ground for government surveillance," Hetznecker said to the newspaper. "I think people have lost awareness of that."

Hetznecker also compared the FBI's actions to those of COINTELPRO, the covert FBI program that surveilled civil rights groups in the 1950s and '60s. In 1975, a Senate committee said the program, which shut down in 1971, had violated the rights of activists.

In the case using social media and digital tools to track down protesters, he said, those methods may have violated the same rights.

"The question is whether they've undermined the privacy interests of everyone based on the search for one or two individuals," Hetznecker told the Inquirer.