As demonstrators shouted, fires burned outside City Hall, and Philadelphia convulsed with outrage over the death of George Floyd, television news helicopters captured footage of a masked woman with a peace sign tattoo and wearing a light blue T-shirt setting a police SUV ablaze.
More than two weeks after that climactic May 30 moment, federal authorities say they’ve identified the arsonist as 33-year-old Philadelphia massage therapist Lore Elisabeth Blumenthal by following the intricate trail of bread crumbs she left through her social media history and online shopping patterns over the years.
The path took agents from Instagram, where amateur photographers also captured shots of the masked arsonist, to an Etsy shop that sold the distinctive T-shirt the woman was wearing in the video. It led investigators to her LinkedIn page, to her profile on the fashion website Poshmark, and eventually to her doorstep in Germantown.
Their pursuit, described in court filings this week, sheds light on the extent to which the FBI and Justice Department have used news footage, online histories, and social media footprints to track down and identify demonstrators believed to be responsible for acts of violence or property destruction.
But civil rights advocates say it also raises questions about the scope of law enforcement surveillance of protest movements and the use of the very social media networks that protesters have relied upon to spread their message.
“Social media has fueled much of the protests, and has also become a fertile ground for government surveillance,” said Paul Hetznecker, an attorney who has organized a group of lawyers to represent demonstrators, including Blumenthal. “I think people have lost awareness of that.”
For weeks, the FBI and local authorities have urged the public to share any photos or videos that captured violence or looting in the city amid the protests that broke out last month in reaction to Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Blumenthal — who if convicted would face a mandatory minimum sentence of seven years in prison — is believed to be the first demonstrator arrested based on footage from the Philadelphia protests.
But across the country, several others have been charged based on social media sleuthing and videos uploaded to the internet.
Federal prosecutors in Trenton on Wednesday accused a 27-year-old man of torching a police car — an act captured in an online video shot during protests in that city on May 31. A law enforcement officer from the intelligence unit of the Trenton Police Department recognized the man as Earlja J. Dudley, court filings in his case say. Social media searches of Dudley’s account allegedly uncovered other photos of him wearing the arsonist’s distinctive tank top and baseball cap with the Roman numeral “XIV” and green, black and white sneakers.
Posts from bystanders have also led to the arrests of demonstrators allegedly involved in various acts of destruction in Nashville, Chicago, and Buffalo, N.Y. In response, organizations, such as the nonprofit Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, have issued guidebooks for demonstrators on how to shield themselves from government surveillance. The tips include covering tattoos and avoiding wearing distinctive clothing.
And in Philadelphia, videos widely shared on Instagram and Twitter allowed investigators with District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office to identify and charge Staff Inspector Joseph Bologna Jr., a high-ranking police official, in connection with the caught-on-camera beating of a demonstrator during protests this month.
In a statement on Blumenthal’s case Wednesday, U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain described her alleged crime in Philadelphia as a “violent and despicable act.”
His office said it will seek to detain her until trial at a detention hearing scheduled for Friday.
“We at the U.S. Attorney’s Office fully support the First Amendment right of the people to assemble peaceably and to petition their government,” he said. “But torching a police car has nothing to do with peaceful protest or any legitimate message. ... Anybody who engaged in such acts can stand by to put your hands behind your back and head to federal prison. We are coming for you.”
According to filings in Blumenthal’s case, FBI agents had little more to go on when they started their investigation than the news helicopter footage of the woman setting the police car ablaze as it was broadcast live May 30.
It showed the woman, in flame-retardant gloves, grabbing a burning piece of a police barricade that had already been used to set one squad car on fire and tossing it into the police SUV parked nearby. Within seconds, that car was also engulfed in flames.
Investigators discovered other images depicting the same scene on Instagram and the video sharing website Vimeo. Those allowed agents to zoom in and identify a stylized tattoo of a peace sign on the woman’s right forearm.
Scouring other images — including a cache of roughly 500 photos of the Philly protest shared by an amateur photographer — agents found shots of a woman with the same tattoo that gave a clear depiction of the slogan on her T-shirt.
“Keep the Immigrants,” it read, “Deport the Racists.”
That shirt, agents said, was found to have been sold only in one location: a shop on Etsy, the online marketplace for crafters, purveyors of custom-made clothing and jewelry, and other collectibles. The vendor: a New Castle, Del., dealer selling “screen printed and hand printed feminist wear.”
The top review on her page, dated just six days before the protest, was from a user identifying herself as “Xx Mv,” who listed her location as Philadelphia and her username as “alleycatlore.”
A Google search of that handle led agents to an account on Poshmark, the mobile fashion marketplace, with a user handle “lore-elisabeth.” And subsequent searches for that name turned up Blumenthal’s LinkedIn profile, where she identifies herself as a graduate of William Penn Charter School and several yoga and massage therapy training centers.
From there, they located Blumenthal’s Jenkintown massage studio and its website, which featured videos demonstrating her at work. On her forearm, agents discovered, was the same distinctive tattoo that investigators first identified on the arsonist in the original TV video.
Hetznecker, Blumenthal’s lawyer, declined Wednesday to discuss her case in detail except to say that the decision to charge her with a federal crime instead of in state court was discretionary and made “in order to send a political statement regarding those involved in this protest movement for racial justice.”
He likened the bureau’s wider use of social media to identify and prosecute George Floyd demonstrators to COINTELPRO — the covert FBI counterintelligence program in the 1950s and ’60s aimed at infiltrating and disrupting political organizations such as the feminist and civil rights movements that agents had deemed to be threats to national security.
That program’s existence was uncovered by a group of antiwar activists who broke into an FBI field office in in Media in 1971 — an act that spawned congressional hearings that eventually shut COINTELPRO down out of concern that it violated the First and Fourth Amendments rights of the activists involved in those movements.
The technological capabilities of modern law enforcement far outstrip the privacy protections afforded under the law, Hetznecker said. And many people lack a general awareness of just how much the communications and information they post online is private or not.