A subpoena by the New York City District Attorney’s office to Twitter should raise alarm bells for anyone who uses social media during demonstrations. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the DA subpoenaed the social media site for “any and all user information, including email address, as well as any and all tweets posted for the period of 9/15/2011-12/31/2011” from user Malcolm Harris (h/t Common Dreams). Harris (@destructuremal), managing editor for the New Inquiry online magazine, was arrested with 700 other demonstrators on the Brooklyn Bridge on October 1, 2011. The arrested were charged with disorderly conduct, which carries a punishment of a $250 fine or up to 15 days in jail.
The District Attorney’s office is attempting to use Harris’ tweets to contradict his defense that demonstrators on the bridge did not hear police orders to vacate the area and had permission to march. Harris and his lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild argue the subpoena is an “unwarranted invasion of privacy.” The San Francisco Gate reports Assistant District Attorney Lee Langston disagrees, writing “he has no proprietary or privacy interest in tweets that he broadcast to every person with access to the Internet.”
The EFF acknowledges this partly, insofar as the government can simply scroll back through a public Twitter feed and get the information they desire. The subpoena however, covers much more than just the public tweets of Mr. Harris:
With this overbroad subpoena, the government would be able to learn about who Mr. Harris was communicating with for an extensive period of time not only through Tweets, but through direct messages. And with the government’s request for all email addresses associated with @destructuremal, they could subpoena Mr. Harris’ email provider to get even more information about who he communicated with.
Beyond that, the EFF points out the government could also be fishing for some other information, mainly location data. The majority of Twitter users are connected via mobile devices, and Twitter keeps track of IP addresses, dates and times related to log ins and messages. Should the government be able to subpoena this information, the ISP would hand over the information the specific cell tower someone uses to access Twitter. Armed with this information, the government would be able to track Mr. Harris’ movements over the past three months, sidestepping the Fourth Amendment.
This isn’t the first time government officials have attempted to silence the use of social media in protest. In 2009, two men were arrested by the FBI for tweeting out police movements during protests surrounding the G20 summits in Pittsburgh.
In addition to attempting to track tweeters, government officials are also keeping an eye on certain key words used on social media. The Huffington Post reports the Electronic Privacy Information Center posted a 2011 Department of Homeland Security manual called the “Analyst’s Desktop Binder,” which contains hundreds of words analysts watch for. They range from obvious (“attack,” “dirty bomb”) to banal (“ice,” “Canceled”). While DHS maintains still such monitoring is for “situational awareness,” time and again, government agencies like the NSA, FBI and officials in several White House administrations have made it very clear they’re just as interested in monitoring political dissent.
In an article in Reuters, Harris put it best, saying that such actions “produce a chilling effect and discourage people from using Twitter while protesting. It’s a win-win for prosecutors: Either they use Twitter archives to build cases against demonstrators, or they scare us away from using the platform.” As we can see, it’s not just Twitter, but nearly the whole of the internet they’re interested in discouraging demonstrators to use.