Law Enforcement

Digital rights advocates slam DOJ data request

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The Department of Justice won a partial victory this week when a D.C. Superior Court judge approved a limited version of its warrant to obtain email and metadata for the DisruptJ20 website designed to coordinate Inauguration Day protests.

The request, which initially called for IP address information on all site visitors, touched off a fierce debate within the technology and legal communities about whether the web-hosting company, DreamHost, should be legally forced to comply. 

A coalition of nearly 80 government, privacy and civil liberty organizations sent a joint letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions Aug. 24 objecting to what they believe is the overly broad nature of the government's warrant.

"A search of data pertaining to all 1.3 million visits to the website is the opposite of 'particularized': it is the very 'general warrant' that the Fourth Amendment's authors intended to prohibit," wrote the group.

After DreamHost challenged the warrant in court, the Department of Justice submitted a revised version of the warrant that no longer asked for visitor logs and narrowed the timeframe, asking for all relevant data between June 2016 and January 2017. Chief Judge Robert E. Morin of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia approved the revised request Aug. 24.

The coalition believes this new request still runs afoul of the First and Fourth Amendments to the Constitution.

"The information yielded by this demand could allow the government to identify individuals engaged in constitutionally protected speech and dissent, as well as members of the news media and the public who simply participated in meetings or communicated with organizers whose email accounts are affiliated with the J20 website," the organizations wrote.

The non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation was one of the organizations that signed the letter. Stephanie Lacambra, a criminal defense staff attorney for the organization, said the Department of Justice could easily give DreamHost or a neutral third party more specific instructions about the data that is relevant to its investigation instead of sending a blanket request.

"We really think the department should take pains to present any search protocols that would sufficiently narrow what it is they're looking for [to DreamHost]," said Lacambra.

Lacambra also said that the ruling indicates that the judiciary and lawmakers still view digital data as different from other forms of evidence typically protected under the Fourth Amendment.

"I think because the law hasn't caught up with the nuances of technology, its easier for the DOJ to say to the judge, 'There's really no way to ask for what we want because it could be stored anywhere, so we want to search everywhere to find the things that are responsive,'" she said.

In a legal response to the revised warrant, DreamHost called the Justice Department's request "totally unworkable" and said that any attempt to seize website visitor information would continue to have a chilling effect on freedom of association.

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a senior staff writer at FCW, covering governmentwide IT policy, cybersecurity and a range of other federal technology issues.

Prior to joining FCW, Johnson was a freelance technology journalist. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, GoodCall News, Foreign Policy Journal, Washington Technology, Elevation DC, Connection Newspapers and The Maryland Gazette.

Johnson has a Bachelor's degree in journalism from Hofstra University and a Master's degree in public policy from George Mason University. He can be contacted at djohnson@fcw.com, or follow him on Twitter @derekdoestech.

Click here for previous articles by Johnson.


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