In Philadelphia, investigators used a string of online purchases and accounts
to identify an alleged arsonist.
The phrase "Keep the Immigrants, Deport the Racists" appears all over Etsy. Variations on the saying are proudly emblazoned on coffee cups, pins, leggings, and even needlepoint. T-shirts with Black Power fists bursting through the midsection or with thoughtfully designed fonts or squished American flags all carry the message, too. But only one of those products featured the slogan on a sky-blue shirt. A woman involved in the demonstrations following the death of George Floyd bought and wore that very shirt to a protest in Philadelphia—and although it appears to be just a generic slogan tee, it set off a long winding chain of events that eventually resulted in her arrest. A complaint filed by the FBI details how the organization painstakingly tracked down Lore-Elisabeth Blumenthal, who was wanted for allegedly setting fire to a police car (Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the program on extremism at George Washington University, originally broke the case down on Twitter before deleting his thread because his "Twitter notifications were a cesspool," he told me). The case peels back the many ways social media posts, online purchasing behavior, and even the clothes we think of as relatively anonymous can be used to sniff out individual protesters.
On May 30th, Blumenthal went to a protest in Philadelphia wearing a light blue T-shirt, a backpack, blue jeans, and gloves. A person matching this description was seen in photos and footage filmed from TV news helicopters seizing a burning piece of wood from a barricade and shoving it into a police SUV, which was eaten up by flames moments later.
Although there was news coverage of the scene, plus a video uploaded to Vimeo, investigators were unable to determine the identity of their suspect—until they hopped on Instagram. There, one amateur photographer shared 500 images from the Philadelphia protest, some of which included the person of interest, with the FBI. From those photos, the text on the T-shirt—"Keep the Immigrants, Deport the Racists"—and the peace sign tattoo on the inside of the person's arm were both visible. All the FBI really needed was the T-shirt, which was traced back to a shop on Etsy. In the shop's comments section, a user from Philadelphia with the display name "Xx Mv" thanked the seller for fast shipping.
Her Etsy page led investigators to her profile on Poshmark, a secondary marketplace for clothes, which gave agents a real name that matched with a LinkedIn profile. The LinkedIn profile listed out Blumenthal's place of work, where investigators found videos of a masseuse with the same peace sign tattoo, as well as a phone number and corresponding address. The FBI subpoenaed records from the Etsy shop—which found the T-shirt was shipped to the same address. An arrest warrant was issued and Blumenthal was taken into custody.From there, the FBI followed a string of websites where Blumenthal was set up.
This isn't the first time in recent months the FBI has used tattoos to identify protesters. Tattoo artists around the country have posted warnings on social media that investigators are coming to shops with images of protesters' ink in hopes of matching them to a client. Shortly after Grand Avenue Tattoo reopened after coronavirus lockdown in Minnesota, two FBI agents pulled up to the shop and asked artist Ransom Bennett to identify designs. Bennett initially refused, but said the agents still held out a photo for him to look at. "It was an extremely pixelated photo with a tattoo on the inside of the forearm that was impossible to make out," Bennett told me. He explained to the investigator that identifying the owner would be impossible—the photo would render making a positive ID "irresponsible," in his words." But not all photos of tattoos are so illegible.
Tattoos and the clothes protesters wear aren't just clues that make it possible to track someone down. The FBI can also look at what a person is wearing to clarify intent. The complaint makes special note of Blumenthal's "white-grey gloves," which are believed to be flame-retardant. "The fact that the subject is wearing these… is evidence of intent and planning to engage in activities that could potentially hurt her hands and/or eyes, including arson," the complaint reads.Drawing intent out of seemingly quotidian items like gloves is not unusual for the FBI, according to Joe Navarro, a former investigator with the agency who specializes in body language and nonverbal communication. "We look at all evidence," Navarro wrote over email. "Nomex [a flame-resistant material] gloves are suggestive of intent, most people don't have Nomex gloves." When the case is presented in court and the jury is asked to determine intent, Navarro said, your outfit—and what it means—matters. "It is not that the agents need this, it is that the jury needs to know this," he wrote. These details are important: merely intending to commit a crime can lead to a stricter legal punishment—the difference between first- and second-degree murder, for instance. The right (or wrong) pair of gloves could add time to any sentencing.
A case like Blumenthal's is exactly why experts have advised protesters to wear non-identifying clothes and to cover their tattoos before taking to the streets. Apps that blur out protesters' faces have also become essential for anyone who wants to share to places like Instagram. "Social media has fueled much of the protests and has also become a fertile ground for government surveillance," Paul Hetznecker, an attorney representing protesters, including Blumenthal, told the Philly Inquirer. (Hetznecker did not respond to a request for comment.) "I think people have lost awareness of that."
Blumenthal is currently being held without bail and faces up to 10 years in prison. "Great investigative work by the FBI that led to today's charges," William M. McSwain, the state's attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania wrote in a tweet about the case. "Richly ironic that we identified this alleged arsonist by her peace sign tattoo." In a separate tweet, McSwain seemed to suggest that such investigations, whether or not they're driven by clothing and tattoos, might soon become the norm. "Anybody who engaged in such acts can stand by to put your hands behind your back and head to federal prison," he wrote. "We are coming for you."