Asking Twitter to unmask an anonymous account is serious; this DHS request is amateurish, but scary

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UPDATE 4/7/2017 — The Department of Homeland Security has withdrawn this request, so Twitter has voluntarily dismissed its lawsuit.  That’s good, but the main theme here remains: What a shocking level of seriousness.

It’s been great fun to watch the list of Twitter accounts run, allegedly, by federal workers — “@alt…” accounts — using the platform to perform a bit of whistleblowing and a lot of sarcasm.

It’s not funny any more.

The federal government recently demanded that Twitter reveal who is behind one such @alt account — one that claims to be operated by frustrated immigration agency workers.  Twitter revealed Thursday that on March 14, federal authorities asked it to divulge everything it knows about @ALT_USCIS (US Customs and Immigration), including IP addresses and user names.

The request came from a special agent with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, part of the Department of Homeland Security.

Fortunately, the order making the demand is hopelessly clunky, and Twitter has said “no,”…and then, “Hell, no,” by filing a lawsuit in a California federal court.

The special agent looking for the data used an arcane rule requiring release of information by firms involved in importing merchandise.  The agency hasn’t even attempted, so far, to reach the minimal standards required to ask for such a First-Amendment-chilling act of unmasking an anonymous person — proof that a crime has been committed, for example, and proof that de-anonymizing the subject is necessary and the “least restrictive way to investigate.”

There’s no proof that @ALT_USCIS imported any merchandise, either.

There is proof that the feds asked Twitter to keep the request quiet, however.  Twitter refused to do that, too. When investigators refused to withdraw the request, Twitter informed the user, sued, and went public.

“We’re glad Twitter is pushing back. We’ll be going to court to defend this user’s right to anonymous speech,” the ACLU said today in a Tweet.

The disturbing thing about the demand is the blatant disregard for First Amendment rights it displays.  You’d think a Department of Homeland Security investigator would know enough about the gravity of a request like this to at least put in the time to make something more than a half-hearted case.  The Twitter lawsuit says the faxed request from Homeland Security arrived the day *after* the deadline included with the demand.

As if the investigator doesn’t take the Constitution very seriously.

The real fear here is clear: Is this a shot across the bow to all the other accounts, like RoguePotusStaff?

I’m sure @alt accounts are frustrating for the administration. But that’s the price of being a public figure.  If a crime were committed through these accounts, such as inciting violence or releasing secrets that could hurt Americans, then of course they should be subject to “unmasking.” Read through the Tweets, however, and you’ll see most are simply statements relevant to public debate.  @ALT_USCIS recently criticized immigration authorities for losing 70,000 green cards each year, for example.

Those of us who’ve watched these accounts from day one believe a prosecutor who did so might be very disappointed in the end. Many, if not most, of the people behind these accounts are only pretending to be at the agencies they are “exposing.”  There’s not even real proof within the Tweets of many of these accounts that demonstrate any kind of insider knowledge.

Imagine the egg on the face of an investigator who assault the First Amendment only to find a kid in a basement behind a Twitter account.

The Twitter lawsuit should be required reading for social studies classes across America.

“The rights of free speech afforded Twitter’s users and Twitter itself under the

First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution include a right to disseminate such anonymous or pseudonymous political speech,” it reads. “In these circumstances, Defendants may not compel Twitter to disclose information regarding the real identities of these users without first demonstrating that some criminal or civil offense has been committed, that unmasking the users’ identity is the least restrictive means for investigating that offense, that the demand for this information is not motivated by a desire to suppress free speech, and that the interests of pursuing that investigation outweigh the important First Amendment rights of Twitter and its users. But Defendants have not come close to making any of those showings.”

As with many such First Amendment attacks, this one has already backfired. Within minutes of the story appearing on national news today, the account operator Tweeted that “We gained 17000 followers in less than 30 minutes. Thank you CBP/Trump.”

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About Bob Sullivan 1502 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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