The insurrectionists might have been able to leave without being arrested. Their friends and family members may not have turned them in yet. But slowly but surely, the digital surveillance net is tightening on the supporters of former President Donald Trump who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
As federal authorities continue to unveil charges against members of the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol two weeks ago, they’re sorting through an astonishing amount of digital evidence of the attack. Between journalists’ reports and posts by the rioters themselves, the storming of the Capitol is among the most-documented mass crimes in history. Much of the evidence was provided by the defendants themselves, who posted their criminal activity on social media.
Most of the cases being unveiled by federal authorities are still originating with tips from the public, and there are hundreds of future defendants who have yet to be identified and charged. But a few of the criminal charges appear to be built on wider-spanning search warrants to social media companies that appear to have given federal authorities investigative leads they’ve used to identify lawbreakers.
The cellphones that the Capitol insurrectionists carried with them when they tried to overturn the results of the presidential election through force were feeding information to a variety of tech companies that now hold incriminating information about their users’ violations of the law.
Along with those cellphone providers, tech companies like Facebook and Google are holding a wealth of information that would make it much easier to identify the insurrectionists than would a public relations campaign aimed at publishing images of wrongdoers one by one.
“We’re all carrying tiny tracking devices with us all the time, and people aren’t necessarily conscious of the extent to which that information is obtainable from a variety of sources,” said Julian Sanchez, a senior fellow at Cato and an expert on technology, privacy and civil liberties.
The very same platforms where Trump supporters absorbed lies that convinced them of conspiracy theories about a stolen election are providing the government with the information they need to identify the insurrectionists and bring charges.
Anyone who was located inside the Capitol ― unless they were a credentialed reporter, Capitol Hill staffer or a guest of a member of Congress ― was committing a crime simply by being present, whether they entered through a broken window or followed the mob through the door. Even the thousands of people on the lawn and steps of the U.S. Capitol were breaking the law when they followed the violent mob that broke down barriers that had been manned by U.S. Capitol Police officers on the perimeter. That makes them easier to prosecute than protesters who have a right to be on a public street.
“If the government is monitoring thousands of people on a public street at a First Amendment protest and tracking them on the grounds that some of them may or will later engage in crimes, I think that raises obvious concerns about chilling First Amendment protected activity,” said Sanchez. “If you’re monitoring someone who is in the act of committing a burglary, well that’s only chilling activity that everyone is pretty OK with chilling.”
The fact that the rioters’ very presence inside the U.S. Capitol was a crime ― and that videos capturing crimes aired on the local news ― gave the feds a reason to ask social media companies for incriminating evidence.
A line found in many affidavits from FBI agents states that “national news coverage” featured “video footage which appeared to be captured on mobile devices of persons present on the scene” that “depicted evidence of violations of local and federal law, including scores of individuals inside the U.S. Capitol building without authority to be there.”
In one case, a statement of facts written by an unnamed task force officer detailed to the FBI’s National Security Squad notes that Facebook provided information “as part of a search warrant return” that indicated that a certain user “was livestreaming video in the Capitol” during the siege. Facebook provided information “in response to legal process served on Facebook,” and then provided information on the user, identified as Chris Spencer, including his name and date of birth.
There is an informant involved in Spencer’s case, who confirmed that he had posted videos from inside the Capitol, but based on the affidavit it appears as though authorities only talked to the informant after getting the information from Facebook. The video aren’t screenshots of Spencer’s livestream provided by a source, but rather files received directly from Facebook.
In another case, a statement of facts written by an unnamed FBI special agent indicates that a “Facebook Legal Request” turned up a five-minute video that a Facebook user uploaded to his account that showed him and a crowd of others inside the Capitol crypt. The defendant, Jesus Rivera, later disabled or deleted his account, but Facebook already had all the information it needed for the feds to charge them.
“That Facebook account has since been disabled or deleted however a Facebook index page, provided to the FBI in the return of a Federal Search Warrant, listed several identifiers that correspond with Rivera,” the FBI agent wrote. “These identifiers include Rivera’s last name, first initials, three phone numbers attributed to Rivera in open source, the payment name ‘Jesus Rivera’ and a city of residence of Pensacola, Florida, which matches Rivera’s city of residence.”
In the Rivera case, there’s no indication that any of Rivera’s Facebook friends tipped off the feds about his activity before he deleted his account. But the FBI was able to build a case against him based on the information ― and video ― he had already proactively disclosed to Facebook, which the company provided to the government even after he deleted it.
Typically companies respond to requests for information on specific users, but government filings suggest the company has provided a much broader amount of information about a variety of users in this instance.
Even when insurrections have been identified through other methods, data contained on their cell phones provides the government with even more evidence of their criminality.
The Cleveland division of the FBI received a tip, via a Twitter post, that Christine Priola ― a school therapist with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District ― was the woman seen holding a sign referencing a QAnon conspiracy while in the Senate chamber. In an affidavit, a U.S. deputy marshal with the U.S. Marshal Service wrote that a search of Priola’s iPhone recovered photos, videos, chats and messages in the days surrounding the Capitol siege as well as device location dad for Jan. 6.
An additional piece of evidence: Priola connected to a WiFi network located just outside the U.S. Capitol building.
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