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How a Reporter Outed Undercover Accounts Likely Belonging to FBI Boss James Comey

You don’t have to be an expert computer cracker to be a great sleuth. There’s likely already a wealth of publicly available information on your target, whomever that may be, from which to draw. Experts call the material obtained through this kind of directed digging “open source intelligence.” You could also call it, Stuff You Find Online.

On Thursday, Gizmodo’s Ashley Feinberg took an off-the-cuff remark from James Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as the basis for a probe into his possible Internet aliases. Comey had revealed at a dinner that he maintains secret social media accounts, including one “with nine followers” whom are “all immediate relatives.” This seemingly innocuous statement would be his apparent undoing.

Armed with that knowledge, Feinberg set out. She searched Twitter (TWTR) for Comey’s family members. After identifying an old Twitter handle associated with his son, she turned up a video uploaded to Facebook’s (FB) Instagram that linked to what appeared to be his son’s profile. When she requested to follow the account, Instagram served up “suggestions for you,” a feature that offers recommendations of similar people to follow, one of which was an account with about 9 followers. (Actually 10.) The account, “reinholdniebuhr,” just happened to share a name with the 20th century American theologian about whom Comey had written his senior thesis in college, a fact Feinberg learned by reading this news story.

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Ultimately, Feinberg uncovered what appears to be the FBI boss’ Instagram and Twitter accounts. She builds her case with a heap supporting evidence, including the presence of a tell-tale Twitter follower (Benjamin Wittes, editor of the wonky national security blog Lawfare and personal friend of Comey) and some reasoning behind the choice of a Twitter handle, @projectexile7. (Hint: it sounds a lot like the title of a program, “project exile,” that was a highlight of Comey’s career.)

In today’s networked world, it is nigh impossible for people to fully cover their tracks. Even the director of the FBI, someone who presumably knows a great deal about operational security, left enough hints for a reporter to out him. (The FBI has declined to comment on the report.) If you’re an executive looking to keep a low profile, be aware. The Internet knows more about you than you may think.