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"The FBI has been reading my diary" 

A student is mistakenly targeted as an investigation blurs the line between local and federal law enforcement

For Erin Carter, a junior at Chapel Hill High School, it seemed like just another Friday. She went to class, and in her off time, thought about what to post on her web log, or "blog." Part journal and part sounding board, Carter called it "Text into Nothing." She'd launched it last December, and considered it a space for venting her observations and frustrations, an online diary of sorts.

Carter, 17, quickly became an active blogger, posting new messages almost every other day. She wrote about what makes her mad (family and school problems), sad (heartaches and loneliness) and glad (friends and music). "It seemed like an interesting idea, to be able to post what's up in your life, and then you can tell friends about it, and you know, they can look at it and see what's going on," she explains. "Like, if you're in a bad mood one day, they can go see why. If I had any commentary to make about what's going on in the world, or in my school or social group, I would talk about that."

Carter says she told 10 or 15 friends about her blog, and didn't intend for it to reach a wider audience. "It was really personal," she says. But it wasn't, as she learned when two men who appeared to be FBI agents showed up at school and gave her the third degree about what she'd written.

Called out of sixth period to the principal's office on the afternoon of May 2, Carter assumed that she was about to be busted for skipping class or some similarly minor offense. But soon it was clear that something else was going on, something potentially much more serious. Along with Principal Mary Ann Hardebeck, Carter found herself sitting in a room with two law officers wearing navy blue shirts that bore the logo of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The two lawmen held a sheaf of paper. "They had my journal printed out," Carter says. "A good stack of it, and I could tell that there were a lot of things highlighted."

Why were supposed FBI agents asking about a student's blog? The story begins the previous week, when high school staff members detected a problem in the school's computer network, Citrix. There appeared to be a glitch that was barring approved personnel from logging on to the network. Administrators, fearing the system had been hacked, contacted the campus police officer, who in turn notified Chapel Hill police investigators. There, the department's top computer crime specialist, Steve Anson, would oversee the case.

About a year ago, Anson was detailed to work full time at the Raleigh office of the statewide FBI High Tech Crime Task Force, though he remains a Chapel Hill Police employee. He was out of the state when the report of the problem with Citrix came in, he says, so two Chapel Hill Police officers, Bryan Walker and John Moore, were dispatched to look into the matter.

Both men, Anson says, are "in the process of joining the FBI task force." But since their paper work and security clearances are still being processed, he says, they continue to operate under local jurisdiction. In other words, they can only pursue investigations within town limits, and Anson says that from start to finish, this was a Chapel Hill Police Department case.

The FBI, for its part, probably had little to do with it. The bureau has bigger fish to fry, usually cases involving money, says Dan Verton, a writer for Computerworld magazine who wrote a recent book, Hacker Diaries, about teenage hackers and law enforcement. "Even though cyber crime is now the number three priority in the bureau, in cyber crime they're stretched so thin that there has to be a monetary threshold crossed before they can dedicate their resources to investigating it," he says. "It's somewhere along the order of five or 10 thousand dollars before they'll even come out and talk to you."

Still, the officers who interrogated Carter seemed to be bearing FBI credentials, Carter says. Both men wore FBI shirts, and one of them, Moore, gave her a business card with the FBI's official emblem on it. Carter showed The Independent the card she said she got from Moore. It reads: "FBI Cyber Crime Task Force" and "John W. Moore, Task Force Agent." The address and contact information on the card, however, are that of the Chapel Hill Police Department. Carter says she can't remember how the men introduced themselves, but based on the shirts and the card, she believed them to be FBI agents.

They'd come to see her, they said, because of an entry in her blog titled, "Somebody Hacked the Gibson." Moore and Walker wanted to know, what does that mean? Not much, Carter explained. "It's from the movie, Hackers," she says. "It's a really, really dumb movie, and basically me and all my friends who are in the [computer] networking class, if someone does something really stupid or funny, they're like, 'Oh, you hacked the Gibson.' It's just a catch phrase among geeky kids, it's not any secret code or anything."

But the men in FBI shirts weren't familiar with the phrase, and what Carter wrote in the entry aroused their suspicions. Carter, who has since deleted the contents of her blog, says that she'd merely passed on the gossip that there had been a hacking and cracked jokes about it. "It was something like, 'Ha, ha, somebody hacked the Gibson.' You know, basically, somebody hacked into to Citrix and I think that's funny, because it's only been up less than a year."

Around school, Carter says, rumors were flying about the supposed hacking. Someone had tried to change grades. Or tried to post pornography on school Web pages. "There was definitely buzz going on about it," Carter says. She was just passing on the scuttlebutt on her blog, she told the policemen, and had no idea who, if anyone, had hacked Citrix.

But they weren't buying it, she says. "They said, 'You need to elaborate on this. Hacking into a government system is a federal offense, and the person who did it will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and we need to know. And if you don't tell us everything you know right now, then we're not going to be as friendly next time you talk to us.'

"They weren't very friendly at all," Carter says, and they didn't become any friendlier when she started grilling them about why they were investigating her blog. "I asked them lots of things. One of the first questions I asked them was, have you done a 'sneak and peak' in my house? And he was like, 'We can't say.' I asked him several more times, and I said, 'Do you have a warrant for the search of my house or my computer?' And he said, 'We can't say.' But finally, I got them to admit that they hadn't done anything yet, but he said that he could if they wanted to."

Carter was perhaps more resistant to questioning by the authorities than many of her classmates would be. A budding student activist, for the past year she's volunteered with the North Carolina Independent Media Center in Chapel Hill, and this summer she's planning on traveling to Nicaragua with Witness for Peace, the faith-based activist group that has long challenged U.S. policies in Latin America. "I'm pretty well informed about the Patriot Act," she says, explaining why the officers' questions got her guard up.

Steve Anson, the lead investigator, now says that it appears there was no hacking in the first place--just an unexplained malfunction of some sort. "I honestly think this whole thing's a non-incident, as far as a provable attack," he says. "There's really no concrete evidence of any type that there was any type of intrusion."

Why then, did the police question Carter about her blog? A student, Anson says, alerted a faculty member to Carter's comments about the supposed hack." So it was kind of a no-brainer to just go talk to this girl and say, OK, you mentioned this was a hack, why did you think it was a hack?"

Freaked out by what she thought was a brush with the feds, Carter went home and decided to close down her experiment with online expression. True to its name, "Text into Nothing" disappeared with a few commands from Carter's keyboard. In its place, she posted a farewell missive that warned her readers to lie low: "To anyone who has ever posted on my journal: I am sorry. The FBI most likely has your IP address and your blog address/e-mail address if you posted that. The FBI has been reading my diary."

Carter described how she'd been interrogated about the blog, and wrote that, given recent events, "I am sorry that I've had an online journal. I would highly recommend anyone to take down theirs." Carter says that the main lesson she's learned is that it's time to retreat from posting personal information online. "I know that the government now has forever my extremely personal teenage diary," Carter concluded. "Hell yes, I'm mad. I will no longer be posting in this diary." EndBlock

  • A student is mistakenly targeted as an investigation blurs the line between local and federal law enforcement

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