A tweeted threat which seemed equally whimsical, amateurish and nonsensical threw the NYPD into a Twitter tizzy a few days ago, but it also rehashed a trending social problem: what, if any, legal precedent does a government have over social media?
The U.S. government learned an important lesson from unrest in Egypt and Iran last year: Twitter can be a tool. And they’ve applied that tool most recently to criminal investigations, and Occupy Wall Street protests.To what end social media works depends on who controls it, and the recent transparency filings from Twitter reveal that the US is taking quick and concerted steps in court. The hope is to set legal precedents which will give the government unprecedented access to citizens’ personal information and tidbits traded in 140 characters or less, or, to possibly dissuade people from organising online.
Twitter’s filing detailed how requests from the U.S. government came to 679 out of a global total of 849, from Jan. 1 to June 30, 2012. Twitter complied with 75 per cent of the U.S .inquiries, which, consequently, totaled more than all the requests for 2011 altogether. Twitter assures that the requests are from mostly law enforcement agencies with regard to “criminal investigations,” but this is a slippery slope of privacy control.
Just ask, Malcom Harris, an occupy protester who was arrested during the infamous Brooklyn Bridge march. Alongside the cuffs and an unceremonious drag across the concrete, police levied the one-size-fits-all and maddeningly ambiguous “disorderly conduct.”
Which was understandable, until they also subpoenaed Harris’s twitter information dating back as far as a month prior to the bridge protest. Twitter fought back, though, issuing an appeal stating that Harris’ information was protected under their corporate privacy agreements.
There was also the blanket request from Boston police for information on every account related to #BostonPD and @OccupyBoston, which begs the assertion, if only Egypt and Iran could subpoena Twitter hashtags to get IP addresses, maybe more innocent people would be dead.
Granted, the recent Tyson show Tweeter said things like, “people are going to die” and this “ain’t no joke yo I’m serious people are gonna die just like in aurora,” and, nonetheless, police should and do take threats like that very serious.
The problem is in the less-than-concrete language, what constitutes a “threat” or a “criminal threat” exactly? These terms need firmer legal definition, else we might soon be getting inquiries from authorities for hash-tagging tourist photos with New York’s Finest.
*At the time of the publishing of this article, I had contacted twitter with regard to their definitions of what constituted a “criminal investigation” which justified release of Personal ID. Also, I requested a more specific breakdown of what agencies within the US requested this information. They have yet to respond.
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