More than just a brilliant physicist, Richard Feynman was also a larger-than-life character whose enthusiasm, boundless curiosity, and mischievous sense of humor made him a dynamic lecturer and memoirist, as well as leading him to pick locks and crack safes for fun. But the very traits that continue to charm science fans today also brought him to the attention of the FBI—and now, with the help of a recent Freedom of Information Act request, we know all the dirt they gathered on the bongo-playing physicist.
MuckRock, a website that helps people file FOIA requests, asked the FBI for its records on Feynman and received and published 361 pages of background checks, interviews with Feynman’s acquaintances, newspaper articles that mention him, and notes on the official investigation. Most of the material is boringly uniform: colleague after colleague asserts that Feynman is trustworthy and dependable, an outstanding scientist and a loyal American. Some interviews add information known to any reader of Feynman’s books: that he was engaging and social, outspoken about his lack of religion, with a wide range of interests that did not include politics. But while readers of Feynman’s semi-autobiographical writing will see certain behavior, such as Feynman learning to crack safes, as a fun and ultimately harmless, the FBI report reveals an all-too-serious perspective: “[Feynman] has been known to show impatience and temper at security problems and investigators…For example, [a colleague] recalled that at one time [Feynman] demonstrated to some security people how worthless the locking procedure was on confidential items and he demonstrated this fact by ‘picking the locks’ of secured cabinets.” An incident that the physicist was fond of portraying as a prank was, to the FBI, a refusal to conform to rules and a sign of potential sedition.
The Obama administration is prepping a new digital security plan, and it is: We need to retrofit the Internet for the FBI.
Long gone are the days when law enforcement could easy tap into land line telephones to monitor nefarious conversations. Those nefarious conversations have moved online, and increasingly to social networks like Facebook, peer-to-peer services like Skype, and elsewhere on the Web. In an effort to catch up, The New York Times reports, the administration will submit new legislation that would require companies to build in back doors for law enforcement.
The new regulations that would be sent to Congress next year would affect American and foreign companies that provide communications services inside the U.S. It would require service providers to make the plain text of encrypted conversations — over the phone, computer or e-mail — readily available to law enforcement, according to federal officials and analysts. [AP]
You never know who is checking out your Facebook profile, reading your tweets, or looking at your MySpace messages. But if you broke the law or are under scrutiny from the feds, then the FBI may already be “following” your online activities on different social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn.
A new internal Justice Department document obtained by San Francisco-based civil liberties group, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), details how federal agencies like the IRS and the FBI are now using social media to monitor suspects’ online activities and also track down their whereabouts. The document, obtained in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, makes clear that U.S. agents are already logging on surreptitiously to exchange messages with suspects, identify a target’s friends or relatives and browse private information such as postings, personal photographs and video clips [AP].
The investigators are also using the sites to check suspects’ alibis with details of their whereabouts posted on Facebook and Twitter. And online photos from a suspicious spending spree — people posing with jewelry, guns or fancy cars — can link suspects or their friends to robberies or burglaries [AP].