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US Govt Aggressive, Successful in Obtaining Twitter User Data

- Common Dreams staff

The release of a 'transparency report' by microblogging and social media company Twitter reveals that the US government is by far the most aggressive, and most successful, in seeking and obtaining private user information compared to other world governments.

Twitter's transparency report reveals the US government was the most successful in extracting information. (Photograph: Iain Masterton/Alamy) In the report, released late Monday, the US government is shown to be responsible for nearly 80% of all requests of Twitter user data. Of those US government requests, according to Twitter, 75% resulted in disclosure of "some or all" of the information related to the account.

Twitter says it notifies affected users of requests for their account info "unless we’re prohibited by law." 

The transparency report -- Twitter's first -- reflects government demands for information from January 1, 2012 through June 30, 2012. Out of all nations, the US made 679 user information requests out of a total of 849, compared with 98 requests from the Japanese government, 11 each from the Canadian and British governments and less than 10 from a number of other countries.

Twitter's move towards greater transparency follows an example set by internet giant Google, which has also release transparency reports in recent years.

According to reporting by The Guardian's Ed Pilkington, Monday's report came on the same day that "a Manhattan judge ordered the website to hand over almost three months of tweets from an Occupy Wall Street protester. Judge Matthew Sciarrino, ordering Twitter to turn over the tweets of Malcolm Harris under the handle @destructuremal, said that posting in public comes with "consequences".

The Guardian's Matt Williams provides details on the case of Harris, who was among hundreds of protesters arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge during the height of the Occupy movement's activity in the fall of 2011:Malcolm Harris is accused of disorderly conduct in relation to an Occupy protest on the Brooklyn Bridge in October. (Photograph: Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters)

In January, the New York County district attorney's office issued a subpoena to Twitter, calling on the firm to hand over "any and all user information, including email address, as well as any and all tweets posted for the period 9/15/2011 – 12/31/2011".

Harris initially attempted to block the move, but was told that he had no proprietary interest to his own messages.

Twitter countered that this contradicts its own terms and conditions, which explicitly states that users "retain their right to any content they submit, post or display on or through". Moreover, in its own legal challenge to the subpoena, the firm accused prosecutors of trying to force its employees to violate federal law.

Lawyers for Twitter also argued that under the Uniform Act, prosecutors would need to obtain a subpoena in California before it could demand documents from a company based in that state.

Monday's ruling found that a search warrant was indeed needed for a final day's worth of tweets by Harris as they fell within a timeline laid out in federal law. All else was fair game for the prosecutors, the judge found.
The court will now review the material and provide the relevant tweets to the DA's office.

In a statement, Chief Assistant District Attorney Daniel Alonso said he was "pleased that the court has ruled for a second time that the Tweets at issue must be turned over".

He added: "We look forward to Twitter's complying and to moving forward with the trial."

Responding to the development, Harris's attorney Martin Stolar said: "I'm not surprised by the ruling, but I'm still disappointed by it." He added that he and Twitter could still mount a further challenge, stating that there was still "plenty of time to do that" before his client's next court appearance.

Stolar suggested that the latest decision shows that the court fails to take into consideration 21st century developments when it comes to what should be covered under the fourth amendment. "That is somewhat bothersome," he added.

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