Twitter must comply with a formerly secretive subpoena and hand user account information over to the Boston Police Department as part of a criminal investigation, according to a Massachusetts superior court judge’s ruling in a closed hearing on Thursday, the Boston Globe’s Metrodesk reported.
The ruling from the Suffolk Superior Court judge was a blow to one of the Twitter users named in the subpoena, @p0isAn0N, aka Guido Fawkes, and his lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union in Massachusetts, who filed a motion to overturn the subpoena originally served by the Suffolk District Attorney on December 14.
In the subpoena, the Suffolk DA requests that Twitter hand over all of @p0isAn0N’s account information and the account information of other users no later than December 28 as part of an unspecified criminal investigation by the Boston Police Department. Specifically, the subpoena requests “all available subscriber information, for the account or accounts associated with the following information, including IP address logs for account creation and for the period December 8, 2011 to December 13, 2011: Guido Fawkes, @p0isAn0N, @OccupyBoston, #BostonPD, #d0xcak3.”
Twitter originally refused to hand over the information, according to statements from @p0isAn0N to TPM, but now it appears as though the microblog will have to comply.
That’s because the Suffolk Superior Court judge reportedly did not agree with the ACLU’s rationale that the subpoena was invalid due to First Amendment protections afforded by federal statutes governing administrative subpoenas. But the ACLU could say little about the actual developments in the case as the judge also ruled to keep the hearing’s outcome and contents closed to the public.
“We are disappointed and concerned that a Suffolk Superior Court judge today held a secret hearing over the objections of lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, and then impounded all documents and motions filed in the case,” the ACLU of Massachusetts said in a statement released Thursday afternoon.
Still, attorney Peter Krupp, acting on behalf of the ACLU in its defense of @p0isAn0N’s information, was able to tell TPM that no additional hearings had been scheduled and that the ACLU would decide how to proceed, if it all, within the next 10 days.
“We have to discuss and decide what to do,” Krupp said in a phone interview.
The case gained international media attention after Twitter sent emails to @p0isAn0N and other users notifying them that their information was being sought by the Suffolk District Attorney, despite the fact that the subpoena contained an explicit request not to alert users about the request and the related investigation.
As Twitter spokesperson Matt Graves told Read Write Web in defense of Twitter’s action to alert users: “We can’t comment on any specific order or request…However, to help users protect their rights, it is our policy to notify our users about law enforcement and governmental requests for their information, unless we are prevented by law from doing so.”
Indeed, Twitter’s own guidelines for law enforcement state that: “Twitter’s policy is to notify users of requests for their information prior to disclosure unless we are prohibited from doing so by statute or court order.”
In addition to the subpoena, @p0isAn0N tweeted several taunting statements to the Boston-based authorities, including: “@Boston-Police why are you trying to subpoena my account? For free speech? #umad?” And: “Haha. Boston PD submitted to Twitter for my information. Lololol? For what? Posting info pulled from public domains? #comeatmebro.”
The content of the subpoena posted online would seem to indicate that the Boston Police Department is conducting a criminal investigation into Occupy Boston, the camp-in protests that occurred in the city’s Financial District beginning September 30 until December 10, when demonstrators were forcibly evicted by police and, in some instances, arrested.
Specifically, the investigation is reportedly focused on the October 21 hacking of websites of the Boston Police Patrolmens’ Association by hackers who self-identified with Anonymous, who said they were conducting the hacks in retaliation for the “unprovoked mass arrests” of some 141 Occupy Boston protesters on October 11. The hackers obtained and posted identifying information about Boston police officers online, and links of the information were tweeted by the @p0isAn0N and @OccupyBoston accounts.
The Suffolk District Attorney’s office declined to elaborate on the substance of the investigation, with press secretary Jake Wark telling TPM in a telephone interview that the DA’s office could not comment on ongoing investigations.
And yet, Wark also said that it would be “erroneous to link this [case] with Occupy Boston,” and that although “documents purporting to be subpoenas have been posted,” online, the DA’s office was “not in a position to elaborate whether or not they were authentic.”
The case marks the latest conflict involving Twitter, users and law enforcement requests for information. In November, a District Court in Virginia ordered Twitter to hand over user information requested by the Justice Department in its criminal investigation into the “Cablegate” scandal in late 2010, in which Wikileaks published hundreds of thousands of leaked, formerly classified U.S. diplomatic cables.
But the @p0isAn0N case may mark an even more important development in how social networks deal with law enforcement requests for information because it marks one of the first (and arguably most prominent occasions) in which: 1.) a user was notified of the request for information 2.) the user chose to challenge the request for information and 3.) the request for information came from an administrative subpoena, a routine filing, one of thousands of its kind that have been issued lately by law enforcement bodies in an attempt to secretly obtain Web user information.
“It’s very unusual that someone comes in and contests an administrative hearing,” Krupp, who represented the ACLU in Thursday’s hearing, told TPM. “These are becoming pervasive: Hundreds, perhaps thousands are going out every year requesting Internet-related information…But there’s no authorization for them to remain secret, to not disclose them to the subscriber.”
However, Krupp praised Twitter for its policy of notifying users for requests for law enforcement information, stating “Most [social networking] services don’t notify their subscribers and the services themselves don’t go in an challenge them. They have no interest in it…because they are granted immunity under the state statute if they comply.”
TPM has reached out to Twitter for more information on the case and will update when we receive a response.
Correction: This story originally incorrectly misspelled Peter Krupp’s last name. We’ve since corrected the error in copy and regret it.