Your tweets are not your own (and neither is your phone)

Law enforcement demands for Twitter and mobile phone data are skyrocketing. Surprised? You shouldn't be.

If Senator Joe McCarthy were alive today, he’d be a big fan of social media and mobile phones. So would Joe Stalin and Mao and Generalissimo Francisco Franco. Their modern equivalents in Syria, North Korea, China, and dozens of other repressive states certainly are. Because there is no easier way to gather data on large numbers of people, some of whom are surely enemies of the state.

That the personal technology we are all addicted to can easily be turned into tools of the police state is not big news, exactly. But it seems like people on this side of the divide just don’t understand exactly how much what they say on Twitter, Facebook, and their mobiles can be held against them in a court of law.

A couple of recent news stories will hopefully make that reality a little more obvious.

Last week a New York City judge ruled that your tweets are not your own; they belong to Twitter, which must surrender them to any party with the appropriate paperwork.

Criminal Court Judge Matthew A. Sciarrino Jr. decided that Occupy Wall Street protestor Malcolm Harris has no right to privacy when it comes to his Twitter account. New York’s finest are now free to paw through his tweets to determine if he did in fact understand the repercussions of his and his fellow protestors’ conduct on the Brooklyn Bridge last October.

That ruling means you may not have any right to privacy either – at least, until a different legal precedent is set in another jurisdiction.

And not just your tweets, 99 percent of which are public (and are being archived in the Library of Congress). That could also include any Direct Messages you may send, which most people consider as private as email; any IP addresses you may have used to log in, as well as the dates and times you did it; and any Web sites you may have visited that use a Twitter widget. In all, a pretty tidy profile of who you are and where you’ve been.

On the same day Sciarrino made his ruling, Twitter also released its first-ever Twitter Transparency Report, in which it details how many requests it receives for its data.

twitter TTR - Information Requests.png

I doubt it will surprise anyone to find that the lions share of Twitter data requests – about 75 percent – were from US law enforcement, and that Twitter complied with those in about 3/4 of those cases.

In a similar vein, nine US cellular companies recently responded to questions posed by US Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass), who asked how many requests they get from US law enforcement agencies for mobile data, including call records, texts, and actual wiretap demands.

The total? A staggering 1.3 million requests last year, or about three times the number five years ago. AT&T’s response to Markey details the amazing growth in requests, which include legal orders as well as e911 location requests from Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) services.

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AT&T received some 180,000 requests for criminal investigations, including wiretaps. It turned down less than 1000 of them – all of them wiretap requests that contained some kind of error.

AT&T says it employs more than 100 people whose sole job is to deal with data requests from law enforcement. The cost of these searches – not including e911 searches, which AT&T performs for free – was more than $8 million last year, all of which was passed on to taxpayers. Verizon received “between $3 million and $5 million in each of the last five years” for performing similar services. T-Mobile and Sprint declined to say what they collected for these searches.

Who determines if requests for our mobile data must be fulfilled? Attorneys for the wireless companies. Does that make you nervous? It makes me nervous.

Which brings us back to where I started. Many Americans tend to assume that if they do nothing wrong, they have nothing to fear from their Uncle and his minions spying on their tweet stream and their mobiles. Sure -- unless you’re living in an era where belonging to the wrong ethnic group or holding the wrong opinions is considered a crime. And we’ve gone through a few of those over here, just as those folks in less ‘enlightened’ countries have, and will no doubt go through more.

As the LA Times’ Matt Pearce writes, “Everything is evidence. You might want to remember that the next time you log on.”

Got a question about social media? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blog eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

Now read this:

Facebook's 'man in the middle' attack on our data

Making Facebook private won't protect you

Google’s personalized search results are way too personal

Insider: How the basic tech behind the Internet works
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