RT, June 18, 2020
A Philadelphia protester could be facing 80 years in jail, after images of her setting police cars ablaze led to an FBI online manhunt spanning e-commerce and social media sites.
The protest, a response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month, devolved into “civil unrest” and “widespread looting, burglary, arson, destruction of property, and other violent acts,” according to the Department of Justice.
Investigators were looking for a woman who had set alight two police vehicles during the demonstrations in Philadelphia, and used digital means available to anyone to track her down. Lore-Elisabeth Blumenthal, 33, is facing a mandatory minimum of seven years and a maximum sentence of 80 years if convicted, as well as a fine of up to $500,000.
According to the court papers filed, as cited by the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper, the evidence against Blumenthal first came in the form of live helicopter footage from a local news station on May 30. It showed a woman in flame-retardant gloves grabbing a burning piece of a police barricade and tossing it inside a police SUV. The burning barricade had already been used to destroy one police vehicle.
With nothing much to go on apart from those aerial shots, the FBI turned its attention online and sought on-the-ground footage of the violent protests. Its operatives scoured social media in search of additional photos of the as-then unidentified Blumenthal. After examining a set of 500 pictures shared by an amateur photographer, Blumenthal was once again spotted.
On closer inspection, the agents noticed a peace sign tattooed on the woman’s right forearm, and were able to make detailed notes about what she was wearing. Emblazoned across her T-shirt were the words “Keep the Immigrants. Deport the racists.”
The only place this T-shirt was available, it’s been reported, was on Etsy, the e-commerce website that retails vintage items and craft supplies. Under the listing about this item of clothing was a five-star review that had been posted by a user called ‘alleycatlore’ a few days before the protest. A quick Google search of this username revealed a matching profile on another online shopping portal in the name of a “Lore-elisabeth.”
From there, the FBI searched for the name online, with LinkedIn leading them to a Philadelphia-based massage therapist named Lore-Elisabeth Blumenthal. Videos of the massage studio then revealed that this individual had the same tattoo as the woman who had torched the vehicles.
Blumenthal’s lawyer, Paul Hetznecker, argued that the case has been ‘politicized’, pointing to the fact that the charge had been made at a federal rather than a local level. He also used the case in question to warn of how seemingly unaware the public was about how information shared online could be used to identify them. “Social media has fueled much of the protests, and has also become a fertile ground for government surveillance,” Hetznecker told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Hetznecker compared the FBI’s use of social media to identify and prosecute BLM demonstrators to COINTELPRO, the covert counterintelligence program active in the 1950s and ’60s that was aimed at infiltrating and disrupting political organizations agents deemed a threat to national security.
Blumenthal’s is not the first and will certainly not be the last case solved by social media sleuthing. Federal prosecutors in New Jersey on Wednesday accused a 27-year-old man of torching a police car with evidence from an online video shot during protests in that city on May 31.
Though catching criminals is undoubtedly a noble cause, the fact that authorities were able to track down a felon by following their digital footprint with such ease is a reminder of how much people are sharing online and how easily that can be used to trace them.
In a message to other Etsy-loving arsonists, US Attorney William M McSwain said in a statement, “Anybody who engaged in such acts can stand by to put your hands behind your back and head to federal prison. We are coming for you.”