Twitter hands over user's data to the police : why the game just changed for the worse.

  • Author: Lauren
  • Lauren Fisher,

In response to a subpoena issued to Twitter in December, by the Boston police, the website has now handed over the data of a single user - associated with the Occupy Movement in Boston. While it was contended in court by the American Civil Liberties Union, they eventually lost the case and the data was surrendered. Speaking on the matter, Matt Graves - a spokesmen for Twitter confirmed that they handed over the data on user @p0isAn0N but that "We did not give information on any other account." The account uses the name Guido Fawkes and since the story broke, it seems to be business as usual on their account, with no restrictions apparently in place. In a nice turn, yesterday they decided to 'unmask' themselves before the Boston authorities had the chance to :

The request in detail

The information requested by the authorities in Boston included the IP address of the user @p0isAn0N and @OccupyBoston (though that's not even the official account for the movement). The request followed the mass arrests at the Occupy Boston movement in early December, where protesters campaign in Dewey Square were targeted. This user in particular was targeted because they were apparently tweeting details of documents obtained via a hack on police websites. The authorities in Boston, specifically Suffolk County, have stressed that this is part of a criminal investigation relating to a single incident, and not a wider political investigation. Sensing the backlash, this statement is probably wise though I wouldn't expect it to abate the outcry.

The ACLU are claiming that this amounts to an infringement of an individual's rights under the First Amendment, stating :

"We continue to believe that our client has a constitutional right to speak, and to speak anonymously; and that this administrative subpoena both exceeded the scope of the administrative subpoena statute and infringed our client's rights under the First Amendment. With the turnover of these documents any subsequent review of these issues will be moot,"

Where is the line between public and private?

This statement in particular highlights why we need to be worried about this case, and that it has serious ramifications for the future of communication, and freedom, via social communications. Now I'm not suggesting that social technologies should exist in a silo where they get to operate independently of the laws that apply to all other areas of the public space. But we must also respect that this is a unique medium, and a very new one. We need to be wary of the authorities misunderstanding the nature of social media and the wider consequences on the rights of the individual when the courts support this.

As put pretty succinctly by @p0isAn0 himself, shortly after the subpoena was issued :

"Haha. Boston PD submitted to Twitter for my information. Lololol? For what? Posting info pulled from public domains? #comeatmebro.”

A pretty cogent summing up of the roots of the investigation and a sombre reminder of those that will be held responsible when information is already circulating widely.

Still in a learning phase

What's most worrying however, is the risks that we're exposing ourselves to without fully understanding the consequences. And indeed, how can we be expected to understand the consequences when the rules are still being figured out by the social networks themselves, and the authorities?

We have to remember that we are still in a learning phase when it comes to social technologies. The medium is incredibly new and when it comes to the legal implications, we (the individuals and the state) are largely figuring it out as we go. So when an individual is targeted for something which, in this case, they evidently deemed as appropriate behaviour as the information was in the public domain, we have to sit up and take notice. Individuals taking the fall for the state figuring out how social media works and where the legal boundaries are drawn, is not a happy situation. Furthermore, it draws farce onto the state when the user decides to use the very medium that he was targeted for in the first place, to communicate their information for anyone to see....

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