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Paper Outraged After FBI Used Fake 'Seattle Times' Site To Install Spyware

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

People at The Seattle Times are angry. They learned that the FBI mimicked the paper's E-mail news alert style to help put spyware onto the computer of a suspect. It happened seven years ago, but it's just come to light. NPR's Martin Kaste reports that the revelation comes as privacy researchers are learning more about the FBI's techniques.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Here's how it works. The FBI has spyware that can tell them where your computer is, but they have to find a way to trick you into installing that software. And even back in 2007, most people hesitated about clicking on strange links.

CHRISTOPHER SOGHOIAN: They need something that will convince people to click on that link. And I guess in this case, they went for vanity.

KASTE: That's Christopher Soghoian, the digital privacy expert at the ACLU who uncovered this. At the time, the FBI was on the trail of somebody sending bomb threats at a high school. They had a suspect, and they tricked him into downloading the spyware by disguising it as a link to a fake story about those bomb threats. They figured he wanted to read coverage about his exploits, and they were right. But local journalists don't like the ploy very much. Kathy Best is editor of The Seattle Times.

KATHY BEST: I want to make sure that in the Seattle region, if someone gets an E-mail that's coming from The Seattle Times, they know it's coming from us and not from a law enforcement agent because otherwise, who's going to talk to us? Who's going to trust that we are who we say we are?

KASTE: The FBI agents apparently mimicked the look of a link to a Seattle Times story, but they didn't use the Seattle Times' actual name. They did use the name of the Associated Press. In a prepared statement, the FBI says this kind of technique is used, quote, "in very rare circumstances." Christopher Soghoian is not convinced.

SOGHOIAN: I mean, there's a team of people who do this as their full-time jobs. I mean, and these are used for different kinds of cases - some that involve national security but others that are far more mundane.

KASTE: He says until the FBI spells out its rules for using spyware, it's impossible to know how often it's being used and who's being impersonated. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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