In a far-ranging move that has alarmed civil rights groups, the Boston Police Department is seeking private data for all Twitter users who used specific hashtags during a week in December. (Hashtags are keyword markers users often employ to categorize their comments.)
The BPD's sealed investigation, for which Twitter has been hit with a frighteningly broad subpoena, is partially focused on a user with ties to Occupy Boston named Guido Fawkes, who uses the Twitter handle @P0isAn0N. The subpoena also focuses on an Occupy Boston Twitter account.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts has come to Fawkes' defense, and is fighting the subpoena on First Amendment grounds, a subpoena Twitter itself seems to be opposing.
The use of Twitter information in investigations is a rare, but not unheard-of tool for law enforcement. Last year, federal authorities sought information on Twitter related to the WikiLeaks organization, and a federal judge upheld the request.
But Twitter has become known for opposing such requests and even alerting users of law-enforcement subpoenas.
A week ago, Fawkes tweeted a link to the subpoena that Boston police and the Suffolk district attorney’s office had sent to Twitter in California requesting Internet protocol addresses on his Twitter account, as well as details on the @OccupyBoston Twitter account and for Twitter users who used the hashtags #BostonPD and #d0xcak3.
How did Fawkes have access to the BPD's subpoena? Twitter, when served, was told by Boston police not to forward it on to Fawkes. However, Twitter refused to comply, as its policy is to alert users if subpoenas are ever served in relation to their account. (The company should be commended for placing a high priority on protecting users' private information when at all possible, and for refusing the BPD's request.)
A sealed court ruling was handed down on whether or not Twitter will be forced to hand over the information for the BPD's investigation, a ruling that the ACLU will likely appeal if it goes against their client. However, noteworthy is the fact that the ruling itself is secret.
The BPD's sealed criminal investigation appears to center around the release of private information belonging to ranking Boston police officers. The hacker group Anonymous obtained the information from the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association and posted it online.
However, given the sealed nature of the case, the BPD's motivation is unknown, and officers are refusing to reveal why they are interested in access to such broad swaths of private information.
As RT reports, the ACLU's attorneys are deeply concerned:
Peter Krupp, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawyer who had attempted to quash the subpoena on free speech grounds, objected to the case being held in secret and was troubled by the free speech implications the judge’s ruling represented.
“When an administrative subpoena is used to get information that’s protected by the First Amendment, that raises particularly troubling issues.”
For his part, Fawkes has responded:
“You cannot arrest an idea. You cannot subpoena a hashtag."
Follow me on Twitter @David_EHG