Caught Spying On Student, FBI Demands GPS Tracker Back

by: kim zetter

A California student got a visit from the FBI this week after he found a secret GPS tracking device on his car, and a friend posted photos of it online. The post prompted wide speculation about whether the device was real, whether the young Arab-American was being targeted in a terrorism investigation and what the authorities would do.

It took just 48 hours to find out: The device was real, the student was being secretly tracked and the FBI wanted their expensive device back, the student told Wired.com in an interview Wednesday.

The answer came when half-a-dozen FBI agents and police officers appeared at Yasir Afifi’s apartment complex in Santa Clara, California, on Tuesday demanding he return the device.

Afifi, a 20-year-old U.S.-born citizen, cooperated willingly and said he’d done nothing to merit attention from authorities. Comments the agents made during their visit suggested he’d been under FBI surveillance for three to six months.

An FBI spokesman wouldn’t acknowledge that the device belonged to the agency or that agents appeared at Afifi’s house.

“I can’t really tell you much about it, because it’s still an ongoing investigation,” said spokesman Pete Lee, who works in the agency’s San Francisco headquarters.

Afifi, the son of an Islamic-American community leader who died a year ago in Egypt, is one of only a few people known to have found a government-tracking device on their vehicle.

His discovery comes in the wake of a recent ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals saying it’s legal for law enforcement to secretly place a tracking device on a suspect’s car without getting a warrant, even if the car is parked in a private driveway.

Brian Alseth from the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington state contacted Afifi after seeing pictures of the tracking device posted online and told him the ACLU had been waiting for a case like this to challenge the ruling.

“This is the kind of thing we like to throw lawyers at,” Afifi said Alseth told him.

“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,” Alseth told Wired.com

Afifi, a business marketing student at Mission College in Santa Clara, discovered the device last Sunday when he took his car to a local garage for an oil change. When a mechanic at Ali’s Auto Care raised his Ford Lincoln LS on hydraulic lifts, Afifi saw a wire sticking out near the right rear wheel and exhaust.

Garage owner Mazher Khan confirmed for Wired.com that he also saw it. A closer inspection showed it connected to a battery pack and transmitter, which were attached to the car with a magnet. Khan asked Afifi if he wanted the device removed and when Afifi said yes, Khan pulled it easily from the car’s chassis.

“I wouldn’t have noticed it if there wasn’t a wire sticking out,” Afifi said.

Later that day, a friend of Afifi’s named Khaled posted pictures of the device at Reddit asking if anyone knew what it was and if it mean the FBI “is after us.” (Reddit is owned by CondeNast Digital, which also owns Wired.com).

“My plan was to just put the device on another car or in a lake,” Khaled wrote, “but when you come home to 2 stoned off their asses people who are hearing things in the device and convinced its a bomb you just gotta be sure.”