Following the trail of digital breadcrumb
It took an Etsy review, a LinkedIn profile, a handful of Instagram videos, and a few Google searches for FBI agents to identify a masked woman accused of setting two police cars on fire during recent protests in Philadelphia. The protests took place on May 30 in response to the police killing of George Floyd.
The case, as reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer, demonstrates how police have been able to use social media and other publicly-available online records to identify protesters from just a few scraps of initial information. According to NBC, the individual charged by the FBI, 33-year-old Lore Elisabeth Blumenthal, now faces a mandatory minimum sentence of seven years in prison if convicted and a fine of up to $250,000.
As protests have continued across the US in response to systemic racial violence, civil rights advocates have warned that the social media tools that have captured police brutality so starkly are also being used by law enforcement for crowd-sourced surveillance.
“Social media has fueled much of the protests, and has also become a fertile ground for government surveillance,” Paul Hetznecker, a criminal defense attorney representing Blumenthal, told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “I think people have lost awareness of that.”
As this case shows, simple methods like Google searches and social media scans can identify an individual just as readily as more advanced tools like facial recognition. Philadelphia police has been testing controversial facial recognition service Clearview AI, for example, but the technology wasn’t needed in this case at all.
In a press statement, United States Attorney William M. McSwain called the arson of the two police cars a “violent and despicable act” and said that anyone involved in such activities would be identified and arrested by law enforcement.
“We at the US Attorney’s Office fully support the First Amendment right of the people to assemble peaceably and to petition their government,” said McSwain. “But torching a police car has nothing to do with peaceful protest or any legitimate message.
As reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer, at the start of their investigation, FBI agents only had access to helicopter footage from a local news station. This showed a woman wearing a bandana throwing flaming debris into the smashed window of a police sedan.
By searching for videos of the protests uploaded to Instagram and Vimeo, the agents were able to find additional footage of the incident, and spotted a peace sign tattoo on the woman’s right forearm. After finding a set of 500 pictures of the protests shared by an amateur photographer, they were able to clearly see what the woman was wearing, including a T-shirt with the slogan: “Keep the Immigrants. Deport the Racists.”
The only place to buy this exact T-shirt was an Etsy store, where a user calling themselves “alleycatlore” had left a five-star review for the seller just few days before the protest. Using Google to search for this username, agents then found a matching profile at the online fashion marketplace Poshmark which listed the user’s name as “Lore-elisabeth.”
A search for “Lore-elisabeth” led to a LinkedIn profile for one Lore Elisabeth Blumenthal, employed as a massage therapist at a Philadelphia massage studio. Videos hosted by the studio showed an individual with the same distinctive peace tattoo on their arm. A phone number listed for Blumenthal led to an address. As reported by NBC Philadelphia, a subpoena served to the Etsy seller showed a “Keep the Immigrants. Deport the Racists.” T-shirt had recently been delivered to that same address.
Blumenthal’s lawyer Hetznecker said the case had become “political” after prosecutors decided to charge Blumenthal federally, rather than locally. Hetznecker also told The Philadelphia Inquirer that the public was unaware of how information they shared online could be used to identify them, just like Blumenthal. He said the case showed worrying similarities with earlier instances of surveillance overreach by US law enforcement.
“The question is whether they’ve undermined the privacy interests of everyone based on the search for one or two individuals,” he said. “That’s the same paradigm that was used to profile Muslims after 9/11, the same paradigm used for profiling African Americans.”