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 a light blue T-shirt setting a police SUV ablaze.
Now, more than two weeks after that climactic moment on May 30, federal authorities say they’ve identified that police car arsonist as Lore-Elisabeth Blumenthal, a 33-year-old Philadelphia massage therapist, by following a complicated trail of breadcrumbs she had left on the Internet over years.
The path took agents from Instagram, where amateur photographers also captured shots of the masked arsonist that day, 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, peels back the curtain on the extent to which federal authorities are using news footage, online histories and social media to track down and identify demonstrators believed to be responsible for acts of violence.
But civil rights advocates say it also raises troubling questions about the extent of law enforcement surveillance of protest movements and their members over the very social media networks that have been used 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, who has organized a group of lawyers to represent demonstrators, including Blumenthal. “I think people have lost awareness of that.”
For weeks, federal and local authorities have urged the public to share any photos or videos that captured violence and looting in the city amid the George Floyd protests. But Blumenthal — who now faces up to 10 years in prison — is believed to be the first person arrested based on footage from the Philadelphia protests.
Authorities arrested her Tuesday and are seeking to detain her until trial. In a statement, U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain described Blumenthal’s alleged crimes as a “violent and despicable act.”
“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,” McSwain said in a statement. “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 her case, FBI agents had little more to go on when they started their investigation than the TV news helicopter footage broadcast live May 30.
It showed the masked woman, in flame-retardant gloves, grabbing a burning piece of a police barricade that had already been used to set another squad car on fire and toss 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. They provided a closer glimpse of the woman moments after she set the blaze and allowed agents to zoom in and identify a stylized tattoo of a peace sign on her right forearm.
Scouring social media for other images of a woman with that tattoo that day — including a cache of roughly 500 sent to the FBI by an amateur photographer — they discovered photos 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, run by a New Castle, Del. vendor of “screen printed and hand printed feminist wear.”
The top review on the vendor’s 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 usernames a “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 identified herself as the owner of a massage therapy company based in Jenkintown.
Videos on that company’s website demonstrated Blumenthal’s massage techniques and provided close-up glimpses of her hands in action. On her forearm, agents discovered, was the distinctive tattoo of the arsonists depicted in the original TV video.
Hetznecker, Blumenthal’s lawyer, declined Wednesday to discuss her case in detail, except to say that the government’s investigative methods will be scrutinized as part of her defense.
“You don’t necessarily draw information on every piece of straw to find the one needle in the haystack you’re looking for,” he said. “The question is whether they’ve undermined the privacy interests of everyone based on the search for one or two individuals. That’s the same paradigm that was used to profile Muslims after 9/11, the same paradigm used for profiling African Americans.”
© 2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer
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