In a potentially troubling move for the future of online organizing, police in Washington are looking to dig up private information on members of a political Facebook group.
A judge recently granted the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Department a warrant served on Facebook that seeks out the "messages, photos, videos, wall posts and location information (IP address login)" on a group opposed to the Dakota Access pipeline.
According to the ACLU, that means police are after data on the group's Facebook page as well as "data related to an unknown number of people who merely interacted with the group via Facebook at some point during the 12 days covered by the warrant," which specifies Feb. 4 - Feb. 15. It's unclear if the warrant seeks further information from participants' own Facebook pages.
"Bellingham #NoDAPL Coalition" is one of many Facebook groups dedicated to protesting construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would cut through Native American land. The Bellingham coalition uses the group to post about pipeline protests and articles related to the pipeline.
The ACLU challenged the warrant's legality, saying it violates the First and Fourth Amendments. The First Amendment protects free speech while the Fourth forces those seeking a warrant to specify what they're looking for. And while the warrant may not hold up in court, the ACLU is concerned about the attempt to cast a wide net to collect private data on members of a political group.
The ACLU is concerned about the attempt to cast a wide net to collect private data on members of a political group.
Brett Max Kaufman, a staff attorney at the ACLU's Center for Democracy, was hesitant to draw major conclusions at such an early stage, but did talk about how warrants of this type can make people unnecessarily hesitant about what they say online.
"There is a danger that intimidation from law enforcement trying to invade those spaces unconstitutionally would cause groups like that to not exist or not be active," Kaufman said. Facebook, of course, is a hub of political organizing activity.
Police in Washington could use this kind of information to map relationships among protesters. That's not a new tactic for police. The FBI is known for infiltrating protest groups, and the NYPD infiltrated mosques in the years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Using data available online, however, has become a new way for law enforcement to figure out a group's interconnections.
"I do think that using warrants like this to collect information in bulk is something that has been a development of a new kind of technological age as law enforcement starts realizing these places have a lot of information that would be useful," Kaufman said.
The ACLU will take up the matter in court on March 14.