by Aaron Cynic – American law enforcement agencies continue to increase their surveillance on an otherwise fairly complacent citizenry, logging an incredible amount of requests for information regarding cell phone and social media use.
Last week, a judge in New York ruled that Twitter must give a court close to three months of information from a user in a pending case involving an Occupy Wall Street protester arrested at a demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge in October. In February, a subpoena from the New York City District Attorney’s office demanded the microblogging site, often used by protesters to update their followers on events happening on the street in real time, give up “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.” Harris (@destructuremal), managing editor for the New Inquiry online magazine was arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge with 700 other demonstrators.
The Wall Street Journal reports Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Matthew A. Sciarrino Jr. ruled that since tweets are public, privacy protections do not apply. Sciarrino said “If you post a tweet, just like if you scream it out the window, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy.” While this is true, privacy advocates have pointed out that such a ruling sets a dangerous precedent. The Electronic Frontier Foundation noted when the original subpoena was issued in February that “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,” which are private messages between users. In addition, the government could learn even more information about his followers and their interactions with him, as well as his and their location.
Computerworld reports Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Foundation said:
“It’s one thing for the police to overhear a person shout an incriminating statement. We agree there would be no expectation of privacy. But when the police go to a communications service provider and demand that the company turn over records of a customer, that is a very different scenario.”
Aden Fine, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief backing Twitter said that the ruling “continued to fail to grapple with one of the key issues underlying this case: do individuals give up their ability to go to court to try to protect their free speech and privacy rights when they use the Internet?” The answer has to be no.”
In addition to the case involving Harris, Twitter has received an incredible amount of requests for information regarding users. Reuters reports of the 849 requests the social networking company has received from governments this year, 80 percent (679) come from the United States, typically from law enforcement for use in criminal investigations. Twitter provided at least a minimal amount of information in 75% of total requests. In a set of new guidelines, the company said it would produce information “if an emergency involving the death or serious physical injury to a person, we may provide information necessary to prevent that harm, if we have it.”
Federal agencies in the United States are also interested in many other ways to keep tabs on citizens behavior online. In May, CNET highlighted a proposal from the FBI which requires social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and others, along with VoIP providers, instant messengers and web based email providers alter code to be wiretap friendly. Essentially, the FBI is seeking to amend the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), which only applies to telecommunications providers and not Web based companies, to allow its surveillance capabilities to catch up with technology. CNET also reported the Federal Communications Commission may reinterpret CALEA that services such as Skype and Xbox Live include surveillance backdoors to assist the FBI.
The continued deluge of requests for information and surveillance backdoors don’t only apply to the internet, however. Last year, law enforcement agencies federal, state and local filed more than 1.3 million requests for cell phone records from wireless carriers. A survey by Massachusetts 7th District Congressman Ed Markey found Verizon reported an increase in law enforcement requests of 15 percent and T-Mobile, who did not include its numbers in the survey, saw an increase of between 12 and 16 percent. The information shared with law enforcement included geolocation information, text message content and cell tower dumps, in which carriers provide all phone numbers of users which connect to a tower during a specific period of time.
While law enforcement and the government would like citizens to believe measures such as these are their way of catching up with the rapid pace of evolving technology in regards to criminal behavior, something more sinister could be at work. Given the interest the Department of Homeland Security has had in Occupy movements around the country as well as some of the more draconian police tactics that have been used on demonstrators, the increased surveillance of internet users and the content they choose to share via social networking, mobile devices or the web, it’s not difficult to call these information requests police state type tactics.
Federal, state and local law enforcement already have been implicated in several cases involving the entrapment of protesters. From the RNC 8 in Minneapolis to the NATO 5 in Chicago, government agents not only engaged in surveillance tactics against activists, but also directly influenced ones they later arrested into committing crimes. In addition, various law enforcement agencies have attempted to intimidate journalists, most recently involving Occupy protests and the NATO protests in Chicago this year. On more than one occasion during the protests surrounding the NATO summit in May, journalists were either removed from the scene, targeted for arrest, and in at least one case, detained and questioned at gunpoint.
Plenty of people might dismiss connecting these requests and other instances that highlight targeted suppression of dissent as mere paranoia. Such tactics have a chilling effect on legitimate dissent, and the efforts by multiple law enforcement agencies to question, detain and arrest activists of varying stripes points to a much more dangerous world. More than a decade ago, former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said that when it came to dissent in troubled times, Americans should “watch what they say and what they do.” Rhetoric like Fleischer’s and quick quips today from politicians like “if you’re not doing anything illegal, you shouldn’t be worried” shows an increasing acceptance of the criminalization of dissent, and points towards a disturbing future.
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