Washington, DC – Federal authorities have made more than 300 arrests in connection with the Capitol riot using techniques to capture digital fingerprints left online.
The Washington Post reviewed more than 1,000 pages of arrest records, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) affidavits, and search warrants related to the breach of the Capitol on Jan. 6, one of the largest federal investigations in U.S. history.
The treasure trove of documents revealed how federal investigators thoroughly hunted down suspects by studying the contours of their faces, tracking the movement of their vehicles, and even spying on conversations between spouses and with friends.
Federal documents showed the FBI used license plate readers that captured suspects’ cars to figure out who traveled to and from the nation’s capital and when they were on the road, The Washington Post reported.
Cell tower location records showed FBI investigators when suspects were in the Capitol complex and where they went while inside it.
FBI agents conducted facial recognition searches to match pictures and screenshots from the Capitol riot to suspects’ driver’s licenses and images on social media profiles, The Washington Post reported.
Investigators also created an extensive catalog of surveillance videos, live streams, news reports, and police bodycams that captured footage of the rioters.
FBI agents in 56 different field offices executed more than 900 search warrants in all 50 states and DC, many of them for telecommunications and technology companies, The Washington Post reported.
The warrants revealed users’ location data, online statements, and identities for hundreds of suspects in the investigation the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) has called “one of the largest in American history, both in terms of the number of defendants prosecuted and the nature and volume of the evidence.”
Social media evidence was prevalent from all of the big platforms, The Washington Post.
Facebook was named in more than 125 cases, Twitter was mentioned in 60, and Parler only appeared in about 20 cases despite allegations by Democratic lawmakers that the conservative platform had helped incite the riot.
“If the event happened 20 years ago, it would have been 100 times harder to identify these people,” Police Executive Research Forum Executive Director Chuck Wexler told The Washington Post. “But today it’s almost impossible not to leave your footprints somewhere.”
Evidence that was collected included a female suspect “bragging about the attack” on SnapChat and TikTok video a man posted of himself at the Capitol riot getting pepper-sprayed and fighting with National Guardsmen.
Federal investigators sent “geofence” search warrants to Google that requested account information for all of the smartphones Google detected inside the Capitol via GPS satellites, Bluetooth beacons, and Wi-Fi access points on Jan. 6, The Washington Post reported.
First, they created an “exclusion list” of the phones owned by people who were supposed to be there that day, including police, lawmakers, and congressional staffers.
Anyone who wasn’t on that list was considered a possible suspect, The Washington Post reported.
But Google wasn’t the only company hit with a super-broad warrant.
Investigators subpoenaed Facebook for the account information of every user who livestreamed from within the Capitol complex the day of the riot, The Washington Post reported.
In response to one warrant, Facebook produced the data of an Ohio man who posted that he had gone to the nation’s capital to “witness history.”
The warrant elicited Brandon Miller’s Facebook posts, credit card information, phone number, and zip code.
That information gave FBI agents enough evidence to match his picture to video footage of the riot and his driver’s license, The Washington Post reported.
Federal investigation records showed that facial recognition software and license plate readers get the credit in more than a dozen cases.
And records also showed the investigators used existing contracts for government background checks to access personally-identifiable information in private databases without a warrant, The Washington Post reported.
The records did not show which facial recognition software was used in the investigation.
Court records showed that most of the cases were newly-filed and in many cases, defense attorneys had not yet filed defenses on behalf of their clients, according to The Washington Post.
Civil liberties groups have expressed concern about the sweeping manner in which the DoJ conducted its investigation and said it appeared investigators had violated some suspects’ privacy.
“Whenever you see this technology used on someone you don’t like, remember it’s also being used on a social movement you support,” Evan Greer, from digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future, told The Washington Post. “Once in a while, this technology gets used on really bad people doing really bad stuff. But the rest of the time it’s being used on all of us, in ways that are profoundly chilling for freedom of expression.”