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Federal agents tend to focus their phone cracking efforts on terrorists, but they appear to have shifted their attention to civil disobedience. NYR Daily has learned that the FBI sent its “Fly Team” counterterrorism unit to Portland in mid-July to conduct the “initial exploitation” of phones and other devices used by people protesting police racism and violence. The email revealing the plan, from now-retired special agent George Chamberlain, also asked for help with the “investigative follow up.”
There’s a concern that the FBI may have been pushing the limits of its device search powers in the process. Fly Team co-creator Raymond Holcomb told NYR that it’s unclear what authority the FBI unit had to search the phones, and whether or not agents had consent or warrants. The Fly Team was formed to tackle counterterrorism with a “different set of tools,” not everyday protesters.
Members of the House Committee on Homeland Security have lately worried that federal agents have held on to seized phones for months.
The FBI declined to comment on the details of the operation, citing the “ongoing nature” of cases like this. It maintained that the Portland activity met “all of our legal requirements,” and that it had “not been focused on peaceful protests.”
Those claims might not be enough to satisfy some critics. Senator Ron Wyden has demanded clarity on FBI and Homeland Security activity in Portland, saying that it would be “outrageous” if Oregon residents faced federal surveillance like phone exploits due solely to their politics. Without transparency, it’s not certain that the FBI or DHS respected protesters’ digital rights.