FBI Agents Pose as Repairmen to Bypass Warrant Process

This is a creepy story. The FBI wanted access to a hotel guest's room without a warrant. So agents broke his Internet connection, and then posed as Internet technicians to gain access to his hotel room without a warrant.

From the motion to suppress:

The next time you call for assistance because the internet service in your home is not working, the "technician" who comes to your door may actually be an undercover government agent. He will have secretly disconnected the service, knowing that you will naturally call for help and -- when he shows up at your door, impersonating a technician -- let him in. He will walk through each room of your house, claiming to diagnose the problem. Actually, he will be videotaping everything (and everyone) inside. He will have no reason to suspect you have broken the law, much less probable cause to obtain a search warrant. But that makes no difference, because by letting him in, you will have "consented" to an intrusive search of your home.

Basically, the agents snooped around the hotel room, and gathered evidence that they submitted to a magistrate to get a warrant. Of course, they never told the judge that they had engineered the whole outage and planted the fake technicians.

More coverage of the case here.

This feels like an important case to me. We constantly allow repair technicians into our homes to fix this or that technological thingy. If we can't be sure they are not government agents in disguise, then we've lost quite a lot of our freedom and liberty.

Posted on November 26, 2014 at 6:50 AM • 38 Comments

Comments

GarrethNovember 26, 2014 7:20 AM

The way things are going they will soon start setting houses on fire just to have your "consent" to enter your home posing as firemen.

Dim WitNovember 26, 2014 7:33 AM

Burglars have been doing that for ages to "case a joint", either by actually being hired as a repairman - then having a night job of thievery or by interposing themselves into the process covertly. External connections for cable, phone and power are easy to "break" and then gain entry for assessment or quick fingers. The FBI is slow on on the uptake, or just careless in getting caught this time.

keinerNovember 26, 2014 7:34 AM

What exactly is the difference to Russia, North Korea etc? Ahhh, I forgot, USA are the good guys...

AlexNovember 26, 2014 8:13 AM

Funny that people are still amazed of basic surveillance procedures, soon you'll be probably amazed how easy a warrant can be obtained and for what reasons (at least I have been, in my country)
It's a matter of seconds for such a "technician" to replace your data cable with something like bellow, so your ultra protected Linux system gets penetrated in no time.

http://www.thehomesecuritysuperstore.com/home-spy-equipment-spy-cameras-covert-spy-cameras-power-cable-cord-color-spy-camera-c1184-p=3266

http://www.catsdomain.com/spycables/

CallMeLateForSupperNovember 26, 2014 8:39 AM

Yeah, this feels really bad. Even if a person/target/victim shows some spine, what challenge would he/she/it make?

*Are you Secret Service?" No (I am FBI, tee-hee)
"Are you FBI?" Absolutely not. {I am a cop)
"Are you a cop?" Naw. (I am Secret Service)
"Do you work for [ISP]?" Yes. (err...because we at DHS work for all U.S. persons)

On second thought, with so many possible "hats" to ask after, missing just one - if it happened to be *the* one - would silently drop you on the path of self-delusion. It's probably best, therefore, to be general, e.g. "Are you law enforcement?" Hmmm... That does not include CIA and NSA and probably several others, so it is very easy to be fataly general. Are there any "them" who consider themselves neither law enforcement nor intelligence? Or, to put it the other way 'round, do those two labels, together, cover every brand of "them" that there is? I don't know. ANd my head is starting to hurt.

"...posed as internet technicians..." Plural? What, do they all hold hands and pray over it? How many feds does it take to diagnose a faulty internet connection?

(Although that final question is semi-serious, I am open to punch-line suggestions.)

The Last Stand of FrejNovember 26, 2014 8:48 AM

Consent given on false pretense isn't consent.

There needs to be a way to bring criminal charges against government actors who violate the Constitution. Until they are personally responsible for what they do, there will be no incentive to respect rights.

uh, MikeNovember 26, 2014 8:54 AM

IANAL, but I watch actors play lawyers on high-def television.

I believe this will fail the court test, because government agents are more limited than private parties are for the collection of evidence.

OTOH, collecting evidence for court is not the only reason to search.

Somebody a decade older than I can tell us what it was like in the 60s, when the FBI had last gone this far to Paris.

bitstrongNovember 26, 2014 9:08 AM

I hate to tell ya, but security in hotels is very poor. The tactics these guys use are a non-event. Walk through any hotel corridor around check-out. House keepers are cleaning rooms and they prop open the door. When they're busy anyone can just walk right in. How long does it take to plant a bug in your room when you're at the conference?

bitstrongNovember 26, 2014 9:13 AM

In fact, if I wanted to dupe a tail I would use my hotel room in this exact way. So when they present the evidence ... think about it.

Bob S.November 26, 2014 9:16 AM

Gross!

As in gross miscarriage of justice and simply: wrong.

Worse: This clearly illegal and unconstitutional conduct was approved by FBI managers, so there can be no claim of lone wolf, rogue, bad apples.

Worse yet: FBI claims to be the best and a cut above the rest. Instead, they deem themselves a cut above the law.

The penalty should be sure, swift and very painful. Will it happen?

Doubtful.

RolandNovember 26, 2014 10:13 AM

Lying to law enforcement is a felony, but if they lie to you, that's perfectly legal. See how that works?

B. D. JohnsonNovember 26, 2014 10:26 AM

Wasn't there something in Liars and Outliers about letting in a repairman based solely on trust?

AnuraNovember 26, 2014 12:08 PM

From a legal standpoint, I'm not sure how this is different from any other undercover operation. An extremely long time ago (mid-90s), I remember watching one of those forensic reenactment shows where someone was suspected as murder but they didn't have the evidence to get a warrant, so the police posed as door-to-door dog groomers and took carpet samples while they were inside the house to match to fibers found on the body. The carpet samples matched, and the evidence was used to successfully convict. I really dislike what they are doing here, especially since they actually broke their internet in the first place, but I think any evidence gathered would probably hold up in court.

vas pupNovember 26, 2014 12:22 PM

Let's discuss all options - put aside emotions.
1. Main concern should not be about what they collect, but what they could plant (weapon, gun, drugs, etc.)in your room/house/car - you name it. Then get warrant and finding planted 'evidence'. That is sure case for them before court and you have zero chance to win. Dirty work - direct path to degradation of morals and field operation skills of LEOs, but work sometimes around the globe.
2. Hotel and businesses should have security verification procedure of the repair guys who are not their employees. They should know their contractors in person (like banks know people who collect cash for them) and in case somebody new show up - take a picture of that person by your phone and send to their headquarter for verification.
3. In FBI (and other LE guys) there is following classification (as best of my knowledge): Undercover Officer, Confidential Informant, Source of Information.
If I were LEA, I'd prefer to utilize option 2 and 3, but first you have to do your job to have such people in critical areas (hotels/casino in particular). Then, you do not jeopardize your folks for such operations (except high level espionage/terrorism cases - and for criminal Intel only - not prosecution).
4. For all such operations brains should be applied on the side of LEA's bosses to conduct cost-benefit analysis upfront.

MatthiasNovember 26, 2014 12:40 PM

The FBI will fail in court because that's not "consent". If a woman's husband leaves a hotel room for a smoke at night and another man sneaks into the dark room and gropes the woman who thinks he's her husband, the man cannot argue that this was not sexual assault because the woman consented.

Casual FridayNovember 26, 2014 12:55 PM

Shouldn't "Not telling the judge" be a serious issue that would get someone fired or disbarred? How are we supposed to have anything resembling justice if we have law enforcement and prosecutors by proxy lying to judges about the source of evidence, this needs to stop right here right now. If you lie to a judge about where the evidence came from and the details of how you got it, you belong in jail.

JeremyNovember 26, 2014 2:15 PM

IANAL, but--absent some special circumstances--wouldn't deliberately sabotaging someone's utilities be a crime, before we even get to the search part?

And if you were only able to conduct the search because you committed a crime, doesn't the "fruit of a poisonous tree" legal doctrine apply?

It seems to me like this evidence should be excluded EVEN IF the consent is valid.

vas pupNovember 26, 2014 3:53 PM

@Jeremy:"It seems to me like this evidence should be excluded EVEN IF the consent is valid."
Yes, Sir. But for parallel construction and/or criminal Intel - will work. Not all information obtained for purpose of evidence. See difference?

DanielNovember 26, 2014 3:57 PM

Bruce writes, "If we can't be sure they are not government agents in disguise, then we've lost quite a lot of our freedom and liberty."

Uh, Mike writes, "I believe this will fail the court test, because government agents are more limited than private parties are for the collection of evidence."

I must be one of the few who think this is not an important case. Because of the third party doctrine the feds can still get information from a third party, in this case your repairman. Even if the feds lose this case it won't stop the cable guy from cooperating with the police. Let's imagine what would happen if the government would lose.

Would it stop the government from breaking one's internet connection? No.
Would it stop the government from getting data from the service professionals who comes to repair? No.
Would it stop the government from getting a warrant based upon the data provided by the service repairman? No.

All it would do is stop the government from impersonating repair men. But given how the telcos and the ISP already bend over backwards to help the government, all a loss for the government would do is add some more paper shuffling.

AlanSNovember 26, 2014 5:47 PM

But it's funny when the boot is on the other foot and they get all upset about it.

One of the people who exposed Cointelpro cased the FBI's office for the burglary by posing as a "Swarthmore College student researching job opportunities for women at the F.B.I." See Burglars Who Took On F.B.I. Abandon Shadows.

And I can imagine Alexander and company muttering (to paraphrase Bruce): "We constantly allow contractors into our offices to run this or that technological thingy. If we can't be sure they are not civil libertarians in disguise, then we've lost quite a lot of our freedom and liberty to violate the constitution."

Ryan MitchellNovember 26, 2014 5:55 PM

@CallMeLateForSupper Are you implying that government agents need to answer truthfully when you ask them questions like that? That's an incorrect, and dangerous, misconception.

At any rate, this blog post really only scratches the surface of the craziness that went on in this case, both in how the warrant was obtained, and in what happened after the men were detained (or not detained?). The article Bruce linked to is extremely interesting.

Prinz Wilhelm Gotha Saxe CoburgNovember 27, 2014 4:30 AM

I can see the government that does this letting itself in for a power of hurt if it runs across anyone as scrupulous as itself. Some tradespeople do have an unsavoury reputation, after all, for losing sane inhibitions when they find an unoccupied house ... now if the faux-tradesman was there under false pretenses, it would be comparatively easy for someone as deeply scupulous as himself to videotape said faux-trademan, and creatively edit the video to make said faux-tradesman a pervert, and release it anonymously on Youtube and the like. I'm sure there are ways one could also incriminate said faux-tradesman as a drug-fiend, or engaged in any other number of equally savoury occupations.

Clive RobinsonNovember 27, 2014 5:19 AM

@ Bruce,

In the preface to one of your recent books you gave an example of a trades person comming into your house to fix a faulty service. And that the --then-- reality was they were unlikely to need supervision etc.

You've also recently expressed doubts about the NSA / GCHQ "bugging" European cryptographers.

Can we assume that your view points are currently undergoing a realignment?

My own experiance in the past of finding out I was subject to surveillance by the authorities for no legally tenable reason was a form of cognative dissonance which transformed through quite a few of the major negative emotions. Luckily I had been through something similar when younger when another European Nation subjected a companies entire engineering and sales teams to somewhat hamfisted surveillance to try to gain economic advantage in a major contract with a third nation. The old hands on the engineering team had been under it before and had prewarned us it was likely to happen.

Usually such behaviour starts out as not personal, but political / financial, where people feel they have to succeed at any cost to protect their own future or to protect an income stream. With the result that for some with LEO or diplomatic protection, virtually anything goes. The best you can hopefor in return is to firstly watch out for them and catch them at it. Then either "out them" publicaly, or "set them up" so they fail very very badly in a way their bosses cannot ignore. I'm aware that in the US publicaly outing some with protected status is a criminal offence treated more seriously than murder. However the latter course of action has it's own problems and is best avoided lest they seek revenge in some manner.

The problems arise primaraly because too few bosses have the actual or emotional intelligence to cut their losses rather than listening to the bleatings of their underlings saying in effect "He's dirty, my gut tells me so, look at the way he behaves, we've just got to wait or put preasure on him untill he makes a mistake and then we've got him", it sounds appealing and is an easy choice to go with. But as time goes on the cost of cutting loses get so high that sense and morals go out of the window and the bosses own future becomes threatened. Sadly it's actually worse these days because the work is often "contracted out" and even the most senior of bosses will give free reign to their underlings as long as money is comming through the door, and will actually influence those beneath them to provide reports etc that will keep the money tap on.

I see no easy solution to this worsening situation especialy as there is no political will to do so, and for those subject to surveillance it can be an endless nightmare.

Perhaps one small crumb of comfort is that for the many innocent individuals they remain blissfully unaware of just what is being done to them, and thus do not have to face the cognative dissonance being aware of surveillance causes a normal individual.

Dirk PraetNovember 27, 2014 5:07 PM

@ vas pup

2. Hotel and businesses should have security verification procedure of the repair guys who are not their employees. They should know their contractors in person (like banks know people who collect cash for them) and in case somebody new show up - take a picture of that person by your phone and send to their headquarter for verification.

Should is indeed the word here. Apparently, Caesar's Palace management not only approved of the warrantless search but actively facilitated it. So much for "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas". Although it's a common technique with criminals and LEA's alike, I doubt this will hold up in any court unless someone pulls the "terrorism" card.

thevoidNovember 27, 2014 6:09 PM

"what happens in vegas..."

this just struck me as absolutely absurd. vegas is the most surveilled
place in the world i believe, and supposedly they already have profiles
on you as soon as you enter the city.

really, vegas seems to me to be the world's biggest honeypot.

maybe what 'stays in vegas' are the videotapes...

NobodySpecialNovember 28, 2014 4:45 PM

What would happen if somebody shot one of these "intruders"
A fake cable repairman starts wandering around my house looking in cupboards he might get shot. Is shooting an FBI agent a crime ?

Clive RobinsonNovember 28, 2014 6:46 PM

@ NobodySpecial,

Is shooting an FBI agent a crime ?

It's a fair question but first you have to ask another question,

    "When is an FBI officer not an FBI officer?"

To which the answer is "when they have not identified themselves to be FBI by voice or visable identification".

I suspect you would need to go back over some court cases but I do remember a case where a Federal agent in camouflage shot a family dog, and members of the family shot the agent and in effect got away with it.

In the UK a rather unpleasant career criminal that had been involved with the gold from the Brinksmat robbery, stabed a camouflaged police officer to death on his property, he was found not guilty of murder. Though he stabed somebody else at a later time and is unlikely to see the light of day as a free man again.

Having been a contractor in the past, it's a question that has crossed my mind on the odd occasion.

As far as the lawful occupier is concerned the agent/officer/contractor is in an illegal position even if consent to enter had originaly been given. Because the consent is conditional on the agent/officer posing as a technician performing a specific function. Thus the legal occupier seeing the agent/officer behaving outside of that function has as a minimum the right to chalenge the agent/officer as well as defend themselves against the agent/officer and if they can, arrest and detain what they now quite correctly regard as an illegal intruder.

Now the weasel part of that is "self defence" and what it means, after all "running away" is a form of self defence, and in some parts of the world "just shoting an unknown person on your property" is in quite a few cases not an action that would lead to an arrest or charge let alone a trial.

I know of a case in Texas fairly well where a young man from Dundee Scotland was traveling in a taxi, he jumped out of the moving vehical for some reason ran up a drive way screaming for help and banged on the front door, the property owner shot him through the door and claimed self defence...

I suspect that in some parts of the US that the property owner having shot an undercover FBI officer would fairly easily defend their action. However, whilst they might not suffer legal consiquences for the shoting, I suspect that their life would nolonger be the same, in that they would become a marked person subject to repeated checks / surveillance etc.

As has been observed "All cops want to capture a cop killer and take them down" it does not matter if the killing was justified or not it's a tribal issue.

Coyne TibbetsNovember 29, 2014 4:06 AM

I would comment that the reason they probably undertook this was because a "sneak and peek" wouldn't work with the residents continuously present.

Ten years ago, I was robbed: someone entered my house and helped themselves to my pants (with wallet, keys, cell, PDA, and etc.). Leaving out a ton of specifics, I came to suspect the possibility that the robbery was actually a sneak and peek. I can even ascribe a motive: to obtain a copy of the contents of a flash drive that I always carried with me, on my key ring.

I have no proof that the robbery was a sneak and peek, or even any proof the government had any interest in acquiring the flash drive. I do have reason to think the government was interested in me and watched me quite closely for a time: again leaving out most specifics, the best indication is the report I received of "suited men" entering my home in my absence. So an interest in my flash drive is plausible.

But consider the realities of a sneak and peek conducted in this manner: First of all, I have no proof that a sneak and peek occurred; no proof that the person who entered was anything but a robber. But the robber entered my home, in daytime, and stole my hung pants while I was napping less than three feet away, having to approach me in direct view if I had opened my eyes. That's rather brave for a robber...but...not proof.

Second, almost all the items were recovered. I have no way to know if the contents of my flash drive were copied, but they could have been. But the fact that I mostly only lost credit cards, with all the rest being returned is, from a certain viewpoint, suspicious in itself. Why didn't the robber discard uninteresting and risky items like my driver's license, keys, PDA, and wallet?

The robber "got away", and, as far as I know, was never apprehended. Even after ten years?

Suppose I had something "to hide", some type of criminal activity. After "busting" the robber (who they never need let me see) the cops could have "discovered" the evidence among the recovered items. Evidence obtained from objects recovered from a robber is admissible. To prove it was a violation of my rights, I would have to prove that the robber was an agent of the government: How would I do that?

In fact, this is the first event from which I developed an understanding of "evidence laundering". Suppose it was a sneek and peek: Having hidden the entry to my home behind a facade of "robbery"; having "recovered" the items behind the same facade; and therein having discovered incriminating evidence: that evidence is now "laundered". It is perfectly admissible despite the obvious Fourth Amendment violation, since there is no possible means by which I could prove the violation.

(If it was government action and the agents thought the flash drive would contain incriminating information, they were sorely disappointed; it contained only a backup of the computer I used, that was routinely on the web, which they probably already had access to, if they were interested.)

Anyway, if this kind of thing is done, then the entries described in the story make sense: entering routinely to "rob" people, it is not a reach to assume that agents would concoct a scheme such as this to obtain evidence, when residents were always present and active and a "robbery" couldn't be conducted or would be ineffective.

In fact, it seems to me quite clear from the story, that they thought that it would never be discovered that agents had entered, at best; or worst, that the residents would not be able to prove the agents entered.

Given that, the rejection of the prosecutor's advice makes sense, since the prosecutor may not be normally aware of sneak and peek activities even when prosecuting cases. It's not hard to imagine the agents concluding that what she didn't know would not harm their case and to proceed even against advice.

If so, one is left to wonder just how extensive Fourth Amendment violations--and evidence laundering--are.

For that is certainly what they were doing here: Laundering evidence obtained during multiple Fourth Amendment violations.

vas pupNovember 29, 2014 10:29 AM

@Clive:"To which the answer is "when they have not identified themselves to be FBI by voice or visable identification".
In one German movie, it was shown that police office when his uniform hat is on is acting in official capacity: on duty with functions assigned, but when he took his hat off - he is acting as civilian only. Benny may confirm or deny that. Problem is in US - LEO is not clearly on duty or not (not uniformed in particular (Bruce noticed
that regular Joe have no idea how their ID or badge looks like)

War GeekDecember 1, 2014 11:51 AM

@CliveRobinson

"I suspect you would need to go back over some court cases but I do remember a case where a Federal agent in camouflage shot a family dog, and members of the family shot the agent and in effect got away with it."

That was Ruby Ridge, where agents proceeded to throw an institutional temper tantrum that involved a two man sniper team killing the 14 yr old boy who shot the dogs killer, wounding two more men inside the house, and not stopping until they killed the dead boy's mom.

More recently, an Iraq vet was shot inside his own house in Tucson in the last couple of years for shooting back at agents who had just killed his dog. An unknown had claimed the vet was a dealer...and as it turned out he was innocent. 'Swatting' is something of a sport for the real drug dealers.

Summary: There are really very few policemen left over here in the U.S., I like and respect those few that still hold out to remain policemen, but most seem to behave more like an occupying force.

Paula ThomasDecember 3, 2014 1:04 PM

The only surprise here to me is that people are surprised.

If you make a process too cumbersome people are going to find ways round it.

MatthewDecember 5, 2014 12:16 PM

Something important is getting lost here.

The Hotel reported this gambling ring in the first place. Hotel employees saw the illegal gambling operation and called the FBI in to help.

The FBI had the Hotels permission to disconnect the internet.

The FBI had the Hotels permission to masquerade as tech support.

This was not someone's house, this was public accommodation.

I think that is an important distinction.

EdwardMarch 7, 2017 8:31 AM

Bruce,
I agree with you that we have to be careful who we let in our house for repair or installation.
I had a repair done at my phone line and the company send me a email with the picture of the guy who was coming to do the job.
Although this is still not a 100% safe thing it gave me the feeling that this company took their job serious and realize that people are more careful nowadays.

About you story in the hotel room my opinion is that if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear.

I know even in hotels and motels there are stories about hidden cameras installed and more of them thing.

Anyway. Good story and always good to be warned and be careful.
Thanks for sharing.

Edward

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