A 44-year-old Brooklyn man, we'll call him John Doe, was inside his Fort Greene apartment last Monday afternoon with his infant daughter when he got a call from the building's superintendent. "I thought my Super was joking with me," Doe told us. "He said, 'It's the FBI.'"
"Two agents came upstairs and they did the slap-the-badge thing and showed their credentials," he added. "I couldn't believe what I was hearing because it seemed like a movie plot."
Doe is one of about 3,000 New Yorkers recently targeted by an ISIS-related hacking group. According to the FBI, the pro-ISIS group United Cyber Caliphate posted names and personal information late last month to Telegram, an encrypted messaging app. The information was only posted for a short period of time—and experts say this sort of random targeting is most likely a fear-mongering tactic—but the FBI quickly pledged to contact everyone listed as a precautionary measure.
While the list reportedly included government employees working for the State Department and Homeland Security, many of those listed were random New Yorkers, concentrated in Manhattan and North Brooklyn. Doe, a professional photographer, said on Monday that the two agents who arrived at his door were friendly and personal. "They were dressed like central casting," he added. "Two white men, age 40—plus or minus a few years—in suits, well groomed."
The agents explained that Doe's wife's apartment address had appeared on the list generated by ISIS sympathizers (Doe and his wife own adjacent apartments). There were no names, e-mail addresses or phone numbers affiliated with the address. "How hard is it to find an address in New York?" Doe remembers wondering.
"They weren't looking to eye the apartment," he added, clarifying that the agents only came to his door because Doe was watching the infant and didn't want to come down to the lobby. "They were just doing their job to tell people, 'You're on this list, and be on the alert for any weird activity—be careful on social media, look for weird packages, but in general don't worry too much.'"
The agents also suggested that Doe change his online passwords. They didn't share any written instructions or set a follow-up date, but said that if anything else came up in relation to the list, they'd inform him. When Doe's wife got home that evening, he recalled, she was uninterested in the encounter.
"I didn't feel threatened necessarily, because I feel somewhat secure in my situation," Doe added. "I don't hold sensitive data or deal internationally at all. I don't think I would be a good target, since I don't write about things like this [ISIS] on social media."
But he was surprised to learn that three of his friends were on the list as well (all of whom live in Brooklyn and declined to comment for this story). Doe said that they work in visual, artistic fields like design and photography. None of them have any affiliation to the federal government.
And while Doe doesn't believe he's in danger, he said the experience gave him a heightened sense of responsibility. "I think we need to be as vigilant as possible [about terrorist threats] without intruding on people's privacy," he said. "We do live very close to one another in New York, even if we're not warm and cuddly.... if you see something suspicious you have to communicate it."
He joked that one of his friends on the list is planning to go out and buy a gun, adding, "I think that's his upstate-side talking. He wouldn't know what to do with it."