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.



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.

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