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Government Seeks Twitter Info of Occupy Wall Street Protester

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EFF logoHanni Fakhoury of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has written an excellent account of the story of Malcolm Harris, an Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protester who was arrested for alleged disorderly conduct on October 1, 2011 on the Brooklyn Bridge — and whose Twitter account information is being sought by the government.

As Fakhoury reports, the New York City District Attorney’s office has sent a subpoena to Twitter seeking “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″ related to Harris’ Twitter account.

Twitter’s policy regarding such subpoenas, however, is to inform their clients of any such requests, so when Harris’ attorney, Martin Stolar of the National Lawyers Guild, got word of the request for information based on an alleged disorderly conduct violation, which carries a maximum 15 days in jail or $250 fine, he moved to challenge the subpoena.

Fakhoury predicts that the subpoena will fail, reasoning that since under the Stored Communications Act, “contents of communication” such as direct messages and tweets do not have to be released without a valid search warrant; it would be quite unlikely that a valid search warrant could be secured in this case involving such a minor violation of law, particularly since the records requested span two weeks before and three months after the date of arrest.

We can compare this situation, however, to that of the three Wikileaks associates whose Twitter data was found to be fair game by a federal court judge because they had “no reasonable expectation of privacy” in such information:

Judge O’Grady focused on the fact that before setting up an account, users must click to accept Twitter’s Privacy Policy, which states that the company may provide a user’s information, including IP addresses, to law enforcement officials. By accepting the terms, the judge reasoned, the petitioners lost any reasonable expectation of privacy in the information in their Twitter accounts.

The area of privacy regarding online communications and activity is continually in flux, which is why many privacy advocates support updating the Electronic Communications Privacy Act to require a search warrant based on probable cause in order for the government to read private emails, track user locations, and otherwise trace online activity.

What do you think? Should the government need a search warrant to view a private citizen’s online communications or have we lost all reasonable expectations of privacy?

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February 22nd, 2012 at 12:36 pm