The FBI has recently adopted a novel investigative technique: posting hyperlinks that purport to be illegal videos of minors having sex, and then raiding the homes of anyone willing to click on them.
Undercover FBI agents used this hyperlink-enticement technique, which directed Internet users to a clandestine government server, to stage armed raids of homes in Pennsylvania, New York, and Nevada last year. The supposed video files actually were gibberish and contained no illegal images.
A CNET News.com review of legal documents shows that courts have approved of this technique, even though it raises questions about entrapment, the problems of identifying who’s using an open wireless connection–and whether anyone who clicks on a FBI link that contains no child pornography should be automatically subject to a dawn raid by federal police.
Roderick Vosburgh, a doctoral student at Temple University who also taught history at La Salle University, was raided at home in February 2007 after he allegedly clicked on the FBI’s hyperlink. Federal agents knocked on the door around 7 a.m., falsely claiming they wanted to talk to Vosburgh about his car. Once he opened the door, they threw him to the ground outside his house and handcuffed him.
Vosburgh was charged with violating federal law, which criminalizes “attempts” to download child pornography with up to 10 years in prison. Last November, a jury found Vosburgh guilty on that count, and a sentencing hearing is scheduled for April 22, at which point Vosburgh could face three to four years in prison.
The implications of the FBI’s hyperlink-enticement technique are sweeping. Using the same logic and legal arguments, federal agents could send unsolicited e-mail messages to millions of Americans advertising illegal narcotics or child pornography–and raid people who click on the links embedded in the spam messages. The bureau could register the “unlawfulimages.com” domain name and prosecute intentional visitors. And so on.
“The evidence was insufficient for a reasonable jury to find that Mr. Vosburgh specifically intended to download child pornography, a necessary element of any ‘attempt’ offense,” Vosburgh’s attorney, Anna Durbin of Ardmore, Penn., wrote in a court filing that is attempting to overturn the jury verdict before her client is sentenced.
In a telephone conversation on Wednesday, Durbin added: “I thought it was scary that they could do this. This whole idea that the FBI can put a honeypot out there to attract people is kind of sad. It seems to me that they’ve brought a lot of cases without having to stoop to this.”
Durbin did not want to be interviewed more extensively about the case because it is still pending; she’s waiting for U.S. District Judge Timothy Savage to rule on her motion. Unless he agrees with her and overturns the jury verdict, Vosburgh–who has no prior criminal record–will be required to register as a sex offender for 15 years and will be effectively barred from continuing his work as a college instructor after his prison sentence ends.
How the hyperlink sting operation worked The government’s hyperlink sting operation worked like this: FBI Special Agent Wade Luders disseminated links to the supposedly illicit porn on an online discussion forum called Ranchi, which Luders believed was frequented by people who traded underage images. One server allegedly associated with the Ranchi forum was rangate.da.ru, which is now offline with a message attributing the closure to “non-ethical” activity.
In October 2006, Luders posted a number of links purporting to point to videos of child pornography, and then followed up with a second, supposedly correct link 40 minutes later. All the links pointed to, according to a bureau affidavit, a “covert FBI computer in San Jose, California, and the file located therein was encrypted and non-pornographic.”