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Community Champion

The media as a weapon, an expose, or unwilling accomplice?

In light of a recent post of how the FBI was over reporting the amount of cell phones it was unable to get into, plus some musings I was thinking about I thought I would write this post.


It bothers me sometimes in this information age that the media provides too much details and becomes an unwitting accomplice to terrorists and other criminal activities. I remember watching back in the late 90's or early 2000's seeing a TV reporter asking how the gov was able to track Osama Bin Laden (sp?). The guy says "Oh, we were able to track them because they are using satellite phones." Well guess what the next thing the terrorists did? THEY STOPPED USING SATELITTE PHONES! I have seen it time and again. A reporter says "How did you catch this criminal?" The person gives the answer and the criminals become smarter and stop using that method.


I do like watching crime shows (real shows about real-life events, not NCIS, etc.) because it is interesting to know how someone got caught, however I also realize that it is making some criminals smarter and harder to catch. When you see articles the FBI puts out, like the one above, they are using the media as a weapon to fight for more access, which can be seen as necessary or over-reaching. Having worked for the FBI I can also see their point of view. Since the criminals are getting smarter, through the media, it makes sense to use the media to try to make their jobs easier. It is frustrating to have a case thrown out on a technicality when the preponderance of evidence indicates their guilt. Or you were unable to get that final piece of evidence that would have clinched the case because of some arcane or out of date legislation.


I have seen both sides of the story and would be interested in your takes on the topic.

2 Replies
Contributor I



The fact is that the media can release all of the information or can choose not to do so. It doesn't really matter. Someone, somewhere, will always find out how someone was caught and take action to prevent themselves getting caught. This is normal human behaviour, as repeating a task that has proven to have you caught is probably not short of madness (or blatant disregard for ones self).


On the other hand I would agree that the media is often used to sway public opinion, and not always to the correct/Ethical solution. I'm afraid that overall, should law enforcement track all communications, we could almost certainly reduce crime, however we give up some of if not all our freedom to accomplish it.


The trade off here will split many people into two camps, and there are arguments both ways.


Perhaps a compromise could be reached? Much like a warrant or something similar, maybe there needs to be cause for concern before such monitoring can be sanctioned on an individual? Maybe a 3rd party adjudicator/auditor could step in and ensure compliance? Work on a similar model to least privelage and apply more privelage as a case develops perhaps? All just thinking out loud fodder really.


Either way a great deal of care should be taken by media outlets to ensure the information being released is relevant, does not endanger safety or aim to persuade opinion shifts for any type of gain, political or otherwise.




Advocate I



In my opinion the bulk of consumer news reporting has slanted away from responsible information sharing toward higher ratings, for years.  Using your example of disclosing a potentially high tech method for tracking bad guys like bin Laden, what public interest value was served in making that information public?  What cause, policy implication, civil rights abuse, oversight concern, etc. was addressed?  This question is not rhetorical.  If someone has something to suggest, please post it.


I do not think that this is what has happened here with the FBI’s claims about the number of phones they processed and were unable to access.  In the case of the FBI claims, there appears to be a severe mistake that occurred in the information collection process for the stats submitted to the House.  The subsequent downgrade in numbers then detracts from the case the FBI was making.  While this may be hurtful to the FBI’s desired outcome, I think this is an example of responsible reporting by the media.  It sheds a light into potential administrative problem in one of the FBI’s major functions.  That major function is the collection and reporting of criminal justice statistics to other agencies and to the public for the implementation of national policy.  National policy that impacts our privacy and either supports or erodes our civil rights.


I believe the case you were making is, how does the use of technology impact investigations?  I agree that technology increases the difficulty in conducting an investigation.  I propose that it is because there are comparably very few investigators trained and experienced in conducting investigations involving technology devices employing encryption and locked digital containers as opposed to a lack of necessary tools.  Investigative planning needs to account for impacts technology may have on evidence collection.  In my opinion of reading details available in the media, addressing the collection of digital evidence were afterthoughts to the main investigative process rather than something considered as part of planning an arrest or executing a search warrant. 


As an afterthought, locked phones and encrypted devices may be tossed to very experienced and capable specialists and computer scientists, but only after the window of their usefulness has passed.  Instead, if we had more investigators experienced in accounting for the presence of electronics and anti-forensics issues, contributing to investigative planning then there might not be a problem with backdoors and key escrow (Clipper Chip) to discuss at all.


Just my personal thoughts and opinions based on evaluation of what has transpired in print, online, television, and radio news media.




Eric B.