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Student finds tracking device on his car; FBI demands it back

By Daniel Tencer
Friday, October 8, 2010 16:18 EDT
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A Silicon Valley college student says the FBI confronted him and threatened to “make things difficult” for him if he didn’t hand over a GPS tracking device he found on his car, says a report at Wired.com.

Yasir Afifi, a 20-year-old marketing student at Mission College who is partially of Egyptian extraction, said he found the device last Sunday when he took his car to a mechanic, and saw wires sticking out of the underside, near the exhaust pipe.

He told Wired he had “done nothing to merit attention from authorities.”

A friend of Afifi’s, identified only as Khaled, posted pictures of the device to Reddit.com, where a user quickly identified it as a Guardian ST820 tracking unit, manufactured by Cobham, which, according to Wired, only sells the device to law enforcement agencies.

As Afifi and Khaled pondered a number of plans for the device — including selling it on Craigslist or attaching it to another car — the FBI showed up, admitted it had planted the device, and demanded it back, Afifi told Wired.

From what the FBI told him, Afifi estimates he had been under surveillance for three to six months.

Wired reports:

[Afifi] was in his apartment Tuesday afternoon when a roommate told him “two sneaky-looking people” were near his car. Afifi, already heading out for an appointment, encountered a man and woman looking at his vehicle outside. The man asked if Afifi knew his registration tag was expired. When Afifi asked if it bothered him, the man just smiled. Afifi got into his car and headed for the parking lot exit when two SUVs pulled up with flashing lights carrying four police officers in bullet-proof vests.

The agent who initially spoke with Afifi identified himself then as Vincent and told Afifi, “We’re here to recover the device you found on your vehicle. It’s federal property. It’s an expensive piece, and we need it right now.”

Afifi asked, “Are you the guys that put it there?” and the agent replied, “Yeah, I put it there.” He told Afifi, “We’re going to make this much more difficult for you if you don’t cooperate.”

Afifi retrieved the device from his apartment and handed it over, at which point the agents asked a series of questions – did he know anyone who traveled to Yemen or was affiliated with overseas training? One of the agents produced a printout of a blog post that Afifi’s friend Khaled allegedly wrote a couple of months ago. It had “something to do with a mall or a bomb,” Afifi said. He hadn’t seen it before and doesn’t know the details of what it said. He found it hard to believe Khaled meant anything threatening by the post.

The post in question, by “khaledthegypsy,” appeared at Reddit about three months ago. It reads:

bombing a mall seems so easy to do. i mean all you really need is a bomb, a regular outfit so you arent the crazy guy in a trench coat trying to blow up a mall and a shopping bag. i mean if terrorism were actually a legitimate threat, think about how many fucking malls would have blown up already.. you can put a bag in a million different places, there would be no way to foresee the next target, and really no way to prevent it unless CTU gets some intel at the last minute in which case every city but LA is fucked…so…yea…now i’m surely bugged : /

Since yesterday, the post has developed a lengthy thread of irreverent new comments, such as “Get hired by the FBI – Get paid to read reddit – Profit!” and “Worst job ever: being the FBI agent responsible for tracking the 4chan’s /b/.”

Afifi’s story comes a few months after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that law enforcement agencies don’t need a warrant to attach GPS tracking units to vehicles.

That prompted Time magazine to declare that, at least in the nine western states where the Ninth Circuit Court holds jurisdiction, it is now legal for police to “keep track of everywhere you go.”

The court’s decision is expected to be appealed to the Supreme Court, which will either strike it down, or make it law throughout the United States.

“It seems very frightening that the FBI have placed a surveillance-tracking device on the car of a 20-year-old American citizen who has done nothing more than being half-Egyptian,” the ACLU’s Brian Alseth told Wired.

Afifi said the ACLU contacted him and told him they had been waiting for a case like this in order to challenge it in court. “This is the kind of thing we like to throw lawyers at,” Afifi quoted Alseth as saying.

According to Wired, Afifi’s father, who was a Muslim community association president in Santa Clara, died in Egypt last year. It’s not clear whether the FBI’s interest in Rafifi has to do with his father’s prominent role in the community.

Rafifi says FBI agents contacted an ex-roommate about him six months ago. He says he knows he is on a government watch list, as he is frequently pulled aside for extra screening at airports. But he said the FBI told him their investigation of him was effectively over.

“You’re boring,” they reportedly told him.

 
 
 
 
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