The FBI took -- and mysteriously returned -- their server.
2012-05-14 0:00

By Bob Sullivan | MSNBC

Ever wonder what it’s like to have FBI agents knock on your door? Or to have them walk into your business unannounced and walk away with your computer? Jamie McClelland and Alfredo Lopez can tell you.

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Their recent run-in with the men in black – the result of a spate of email bomb threats to the University of Pittsburgh -- offers a rare glimpse into the collision between free speech rights and the benefits of anonymity on one side with the needs of law enforcement to act quickly in the face of real threats on the other.

Their tale ends with an odd twist: FBI agents, caught on video, returning the server only four days after it was seized from a co-location facility in New York City. At the moment, no one knows why the FBI would take that unusual step. FBI Special Agent Bill Crowley said the agency wouldn’t comment on either the seizure or the return of the server.

Federal investigators and local officials in Pittsburgh were scrambling last month as bomb threats targeting the University of Pittsburgh piled up. Within days, 46 such threats were logged, causing massive disruption as students and teachers were continually evacuated from building after building. Parents and school officials pressured law enforcement to solve the case. For some reason, the FBI thought a server in a small facility in New York City might contain a crucial clue.

McClelland and Lopez run a progressive Internet organization called MayFirst/PeopleLink, which helps democracy-seeking groups around the world use the Web to organize. Together with sister organization RiseUp, MayFirst/PeopleLink offers email services, mailing list support and other Web tools. But their services make a promise that’s critical to people fighting oppressive regimes: All data is encrypted, guaranteeing total anonymity to those who need it.

McClelland was on a conference call in MayFirst/PeopleLink’s Brooklyn office -- which is in the same building where Lopez and his wife live -- on April 11 when he saw two men in suits standing at the door.

"I thought they were Jehovah’s Witnesses, but I joked with people on the call that it was the FBI," he said. Moments later, it was no joke.

The agents flashed their badges and asked if they could come in; McClelland refused. They asked if they could step into the vestibule. He refused again.


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