Technologist - The FindLaw Legal Technology Blog

Threats on 'Anonymous' Messaging App Result in FBI Arrest

"Asalam alaikum, brother," the suspected terrorist messaged.

He had talked about "jihad and shooting all the people all the time," but the time had come to act. Using an anonymous phone app, he revealed his plan to attack. "I cannot speak of anything," he said. "Say your dua, sleep, and watch the news tomorrow."

Within hours, law enforcement agents were outside his apparent. He tried furiously to encrypt his computer files, but it was too late.

The FBI arrested Garrett Grimsely and seized an assault weapon, along with about 340 rounds of ammunition. He is facing up to five years in prison for "transmitting a threat in interstate commerce to injure the person of another."

Whisper, Not So Loudly

Whisper, a free app that allows people to communicate anonymously, also keeps geolocation data that helped authorities find Grimsely. With that information, they also obtained his computer's IP address.

The case illustrates the reality that online anonymity is not all that anonymous. It is especially true with mobile device applications like Whisper. For years, the company has reportedly shared its geolocation data with the U.S. Department of Defense.

The Guardian reported that Whisper developed an in-house mapping tool that allows staffers to pinpoint messages to within 500 meters. Even when a user turns off geolocation services on a device, the company can extract a location from IP data.

When it comes to criminal investigations in most cases, a search and arrest is only a warrant away.

Old Fashioned Warrant Way

In another Whisper case, a 49-year-old man was convicted for sexual crimes with a minor after he used the app to communicate with a 15-year-old girl.

James Erion contacted her using Whisper, text messages, and Kik, another app that allows users to be anonymous.

He gave her a smartphone so she could communicate with him secretly, until the girl's mother discovered the phone and reported it to police. Through search warrants, authorities conducted a forensic examination of their electronic devices and found a history of explicit messages and photos.

He is serving a four-year sentence.

Related Resources: