On Wednesday, one of the individuals who was arrested at protests over the inauguration of Donald Trump received an email from Facebook’s “Law Enforcement Response Team.” (CityLab obtained the email from the individual’s attorney on the condition of anonymity for both the client and their representative.)
More than 230 protesters had been arrested that day, and many—including the individual who’d received this email—were charged with rioting and had their phones seized by Washington, D.C., police. The police have been holding Inauguration protesters’ phones since the arrests.
Did D.C. police ask Facebook to reveal information about this arrestee? In an emailed response to CityLab’s request for more information, Rachel Reid, a spokesperson for the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, responded that “MPD does not comment on investigative tactics.” The District of Columbia United States Attorney's Office—the agency leading the prosecution of Inauguration protesters—has not yet responded to CityLab’s inquiry.
CityLab also asked Facebook about the email. “We don’t comment on individual requests,” company spokesperson Jay Nancarrow said. He referred CityLab to the site’s law enforcement guidelines page and to its Government Requests Report database, where the public can see how many legal processes it receives from countries worldwide. According to this database, U.S. law enforcement requested information on the accounts of 38,951 users over January to June of 2016, and they received some type of data in 80 percent of cases.
Which “legal process” authorities sent to Facebook for information on the protester matters considerably in terms of how much data they can seize for investigation. According to Facebook’s legal guidelines, a search warrant, for example, could allow Facebook to give away content data including “messages, photos, videos, timeline posts, and location information.” A subpoena or a court order would give authorities less information, but would still include the individual’s “name, length of service, credit card information, email address(es), and a recent login/logout IP address(es).”
Freddy Martinez, director of the Chicago-based police accountability group Lucy Parsons Labs, says that information acquired through a lower-level legal process could still be revealing. ”Asking for IP data could point toward a physical location—i.e. an apartment—that people stayed in and could widen the net for further prosecution of other protesters," he says.
D.C. police have been heavily criticized by civil liberties groups for the inauguration arrests, particularly those of lawyers and journalists. The broad nature of the arrests prompted an immediate class action lawsuit. Concerns have also been raised about the police’s decision to hold the phones of all those arrested. As CityLab reported last week, one arrestee’s Gmail account showed account activity from their mobile device, which was in police possession. This prompted questions about whether the police had the phones out, instead of properly securing them away in evidence bags, causing concerns that police were mining them for content pre-trial.
At least one other inauguration arrestee has also been targeted for social media investigation. A subpoena issued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia on January 27, 2017 and signed off on by a D.C. Metropolitan Police Detective asks Facebook for subscriber information. According to the source who provided the subpoena to CityLab on Monday morning, the redacted blocks on the second page shield columns of phone numbers, which are connected to other arrestees for whom the District Attorney and police are seeking information.