FBI tried to muscle newspaper into handing over reader IP addresses

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The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI (opens in new tab)) has scrapped its attempts to get the IP addresses, phone numbers and other information of readers of an online newspaper article as part of an ongoing investigation.

The article in question (opens in new tab) was published by USA Today back in February and concerned the deaths of two FBI agents who were killed while trying to serve a warrant in a child exploitation case in Florida. 

According to the subpoena (opens in new tab) (PDF) sent to the news outlet, the government agency was trying to seek information on readers who accessed the article during a 35-minute window after publication. However, USA Today's owner Gannet then asked a court to cancel the subpoena as it was a clear violation of the first amendment (opens in new tab) of the US Constitution.

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In a statement to the BBC, USA Today's publisher Maribel Perez Wadsworth provided further insight on the situation, saying:

“Being forced to tell the government who reads what on our websites is a clear violation of the first amendment. The FBI's subpoena asks for private information about readers of our journalism."

Backing down

After Gannet held its ground when requested to provide information on its readers, the FBI eventually backed down telling the BBC that it no longer needed the data it originally sought due to “intervening investigative developments”.

Another strange point worth mentioning is the fact that the suspect who was being served the warrant took their own life after killing two of the bureau's agents. 

Why would the FBI need information on who read an article about the matter when its prime suspect in the case was already dead? 

Even if Gannet had handed over the data about USA Today's readers, what's to say they weren't using a VPN (opens in new tab) service to hide their real location in an effort to better protect their privacy online?

Thankfully both Gannet and USA Today held their ground and didn't allow the FBI to violate the constitutional rights of their readers. Hopefully the bureau has learned its lesson though we may never know why exactly it wanted the IP addresses and phone numbers of those who read the article in the first place.

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Via BBC (opens in new tab)

After working with the TechRadar Pro team for the last several years, Anthony is now the security and networking editor at Tom’s Guide where he covers everything from data breaches and ransomware gangs to the best way to cover your whole home or business with Wi-Fi. When not writing, you can find him tinkering with PCs and game consoles, managing cables and upgrading his smart home.