FBI Uses ‘Sledgehammer’ to Seize E-Mail Server in Search for Bomb Threat Evidence

Photo: IceNineJon/Flickr

In an effort to uncover the source of bomb threats sent to the University of Pittsburgh, agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation seized an entire server on Wednesday that is used by anonymous remailing service Mixmaster as well as several progressive rights groups.

The server was seized from a co-location facility in New York with a search warrant served by the FBI.

In addition to Mixmaster’s remailing service, which helps human rights activists and others prevent their communications from being traced to them, the server was used by the Seattle-based digital activist group Riseup Networks, as well as May First/People Link, a politically progressive internet service provider. The server was operated by European Counter Network, an ISP based in Italy.

The seizure silenced more than 300 e-mail accounts, between 50 and 80 e-mail lists, and several websites, according to a statement about the seizure released by Riseup on Thursday. The seized hardware had served academics, artists, historians, feminist groups, gay rights groups, community centers, and free-speech groups, among others.

“The FBI is using a sledgehammer approach, shutting down service to hundreds of users due to the actions of one anonymous person,” wrote Riseup spokesman Devin Theriot-Orr in the statement. “This is particularly misguided because there is unlikely to be any information on the server regarding the source of the threatening emails.”

Mixmaster is designed to prevent authorities from tracing emails – it does not record logs of connections or details of who sent messages – making it of little use to authorities Theriot-Orr said.

“There is therefore no legitimate purpose for the FBI to seize this server because they will not be able to obtain any information about the sender,” he wrote. “This is plainly extra-judicial punishment and an attack on free speech and anonymity on the internet and serves as a chilling effect on others providers of anonymous remailers or other anonymous services.”

Dozens of threats have been made targeting the university since February, some of which were delivered to media outlets. The threats have not been followed up with explosives, however.

The FBI did not respond to calls for comment.

It’s not the first time the FBI has seized entire servers, resulting in a loss of business and service to multiple parties not a target of an investigation. In 2009, the FBI seized multiple servers in a raid on a Texas data center over an investigation into VoIP fraud that was prompted by complaints from AT&T and Verizon about unpaid bills owed by some of the data center customers.

As a result, Liquid Motors, which provides inventory management and marketing services to national automobile dealers and was not part of the investigation, was unable to fulfill its service contracts with customers. It was just one of about 50 companies that were put out of business by the raid.