Twitter hands over protester's private data

Twitter hands over protester's private data

Summary: Twitter wanted no part of a fight with the New York State Supreme Court.


Twitter complied with a judge’s deadline Friday and submitted three months of Tweets by an end-user who was arrested last year in an Occupy Wall Street protest, the Associated Press reported.

On Tuesday, New York State Supreme Court Judge New York City Criminal Court judge Matthew A. Sciarrino Jr. ordered Twitter to produce the information in three days or face a fine that he would calculate based on the company’s earnings statements from the past six months.

It is not uncommon for Twitter to give up end-user data as part of legal challenges. According to Twitter’s Transparency Report from July 2012, on a global basis the company provides “some or all data” in requests for user information 63% of the time.

The court order for the data came as part of an appeal from the social networking giant that asked the court to reverse an earlier judgment. The case involves the private data of Twitter user Malcom Harris, who was arrested with 700 other protesters during an Occupy Wall Street (OWS) demonstration last October.

On Tuesday, Bloomberg quoted Sciarrino: “I can’t put Twitter or the little blue bird in jail, so the only way to punish [Twitter] is monetarily.”

Sciarrino’s order called on Twitter to supply information that might link Harris to the account responsible for the Tweets that were posted publicly.

In May, Twitter stepped into the fray after Harris tried to thwart the court’s attempt to obtain three-months of his Tweets. The court contended he did not own that data, which is stored on Twitter servers.

Harris Tweeted in May “ The secret is: there's nothing incriminating in the tweets.”

But the case is not so much about the content of the Tweets as the protection of data, private or otherwise, users put on the Internet.

An ACLU spokesman told The Huffington Post UK last week: "It is becoming increasingly clear that law enforcement around the U.S. is aggressively issuing subpoenas and obtaining court orders to obtain information about people’s internet activities and communications. We don’t know exactly how often, because the vast majority of these requests are never made public, and many are kept secret by court order. But we do know that it is occurring a lot."

Topics: Privacy, Security, Social Enterprise


John Fontana is a journalist focusing in identity, privacy and security issues. Currently, he is the Identity Evangelist for cloud identity security vendor Ping Identity, where he blogs about relevant issues related to digital identity.

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  • "personal data" or tweets?

    I've been re-reading this for conformation, but I don't see any mention of personal data -Name, Address, age, relatives, banking info, etc. Well I'm pretty sure that the law enforcement involved has access to this data without twitter.

    Now there's the stuff we really care about - our private communications, our diaries (if we keep them) our medical history and our relationship information. Now that information should remain as private as we choose it to be - obviously if you sky-write your relationship status or propose on tv, several other people you didn't tell are going to know. There's two types of tweet (unless I've been miss-using) public and private - well public by definition can be personal, but not private data.

    What about private tweets? Is this any different to taking a PC or laptop as evidence in a trial? Following you and recording your movements in an investigation. Your emails are fair game in that instance.

    I'm not saying that the "they" should have continuous access to your data, but in an investigation evidence will clear or convict you.

    You can't blame twitter, as a company they actually have a responsibility to co-operate with the law authorities; would this be note worthy if it was a child abuse case? they have to apply the rules equally to all.

    Personally I'm very sympathetic to the cause the occupy movements represented, but those are the relevant laws and regulations in the case, not requested evidence - if that was protected by law, all those naughty criminals need do is keep incriminating documents online and they'd be pretty much safe.
    • TOS Compliance

      I read the subject subpoena, which states "any and all"... which could presume private/personal information, but the articles says nothing of what was actually surrendered,

      The personal info of this user does not seem to be the actual target, however... what the government wanted were the tweets that were no longer visible because the site only shows a limited history (by count) of any user's tweets at a given time. Since Harris was a prolific tweeter, the tweets that the government were looking for were already "scrolled off".

      Among other things, the Twitter TOS states that "your public information is broadly and instantly disseminated". The DA simply is targeting *already* public information that has scrolled off today's displays.

      For Mr. Harris - Poor Babies.

      For the people that write the subheads on this column - can we get some rational conformance between the title and the article? Anything else is a disservice.
  • Let them eat cake.

    Rebels without a unified cause are still proof that all is not well with the status quo.
    "Let them eat cake."
    That won't do for Wall Street, anymore than it did for Marie Antoinette.
    Deep inequalities exist out there and we should try to see them -- despite the myopic tendency of the Street.
  • Information on the internet

    Simply put, if you do not want it used - for or against you - do not put it on a venue not under your direct control. An old saying is still very relevant, do not say anything you do not want someone to know on the phone....insert internet in the appropriate spot.
  • Chilling

    I find it chilling that Mr Harris does not, in the eyes of the law, own his own words.
  • Privacy

    No such thing as "owning your own words". There may be copyright law, trademarks, patents, but there is no such thing as privacy. Show me somewhere in the constitution the "Right to Privacy". Sorry, it isn't there. The best you can do is that part about being secure in your own homes. Even if things are covered by subordinate laws, there is always the subpoena that can trump everything you can come up with. We all remember the two Britons that were welcomed with opened arms into this country after they tweeted about digging up Marilyn Monroe and "destroying America". They found out there is no such thing as privacy and I doubt that there was even a specific subpoena as part of that. Maybe a general one: "Give us everything with the following list of words in it...".

    As a different poster mentioned, if you don't want to be eating your own words, don't put them on the Internet anywhere.

    • Et al

      The Supreme Court, however, beginning as early as 1923 and continuing through its recent decisions, has broadly read the "liberty" guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment to guarantee a fairly broad right of privacy that has come to encompass decisions about child rearing, procreation, marriage, and termination of medical treatment.  Polls show most  Americans support this broader reading of the Constitution.
      Justin McCorkle
      • Agreement

        Privacy, freedom of speech and the right to keep and bear your tounge lol. Yes we should all be able to speak our mind with the expectation of not having our tounge cut out. Realisticaly in this day and time privacy is a matter of how well we can protect our informaton. When we choose to put it into the hands of "someone" else we loose control and therfore put ourselves at the mercy of whatever agreement we may or may not have read. Then it gets interpreted by the "owner" of said medium we choose to place it in / on. If it becomes a legal issue you can bet it won't be the "owner" of the medium used to transmit the message that gets to hold the bag...nor should it be. What the heck is even doing by trying to hold up a judge by not immediately comlying ? He put it out in a public venue, there is no issue of privacy here at all. Just one of someone trying to get attention. I am not saying that attention should not be paid to the underlying issue, but the issue of privacy is noexsitent here. If he had typed up a letter and sealed it in an envelope, sent it to himself in the mail and they wanted that...well...different matter. There would be an issue of expected privacy with it.
  • Twitter is not private

    The first time I got a reply on a tweet from someone to whom I did not address the tweet, I realized that there is no privacy on twitter. Therefore i do not use it except to make statements that I want the whole world to see.

    No it seems to me that the court is trying to penalize the defendant for carrying out legitimate protests against problems in society. They are trying to show that his social media account was used to help organize these protests. So as far as I see it, the court is carrying out a legitimate use of information in the public domain, even though (in my opinion,) it is being used by the court for the illegitimate purpose of demonizing dissent. It is the same as if he was arrested with leaflets in his possession. The user has no expectation of privacy. (Although some of the NY judges that Jack McCoy has tried cases before have had a different opinion ;-) )

    On the other hand email has or should have the same expectation of privacy as a phone call or conversation in your home. Unless there was a court order then phone tapping and electronic eavesdropping are illegal and inadmissible. The same should be true of email. (But as someone else said, if you don't want anyone else to know it don't say it on the phone, or on the computer; don't put it in writing; and don't say anything actionable.)
  • Twitter is not private, but there is a larger issue at stake here.

    I agree that Twitter is not in any sense a private communication platform. Objecting to the government looking at your posts on a public forum is like spraypainting graffiti on a subway tunnel wall and then complaining when someone takes a photo of it. The larger issue is that a US citizen exercising his constitutionally protected right to protest the policies of the government and private companies is made a target because his publically stated opinions differ from those of the administration and the top executives of the companies being protested. I agree that the OWS protests were a little too diffuse in their targets, but I don't believe that just because the government may disagree with some or even all of the opiinions expressed that that gives them the right to try to suppress those ideas. On the other hand, the only reason that Email messages do NOT have a "reasonable expectation of privacy" is a purely technical fact that Email is sent over an intrinsically unsecured medium, so securing it requires extra features such as encryption, digital certificates, and the like. The adhesive seal on a physical envelope sent by the USPS is a minimal barrier to anyone attempting to read someone else's postal mail, but it is still a federal crime to open another person's mail without permission. The technical ease or difficulty of intercepting another person's communications should NOT be the basis of deciding whether it should be legally considered private. I don't like the legal theory of "It's not yours unless you have nailed it down, and if I can pry it up, then it's not nailed down!"