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A closer look at the privacy issue

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Unhappy Prosecutors

When MySpace insisted on some legal process to provide subscriber or identity information about people it had already kicked off the service, the Attorney Generals cried foul and went to the press. North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper sent out an email exclaiming: "MySpace admitted they've found thousands of sex offenders on their site, but they have refused to provide information so law enforcement and parents can do something about it."

Cooper included both law enforcement and parents in the proposed list of people who would have access to the MySpace data. Essentially, Cooper was insisting that MySpace turn over information to the cops, and that the cops would then make it public - after MySpace had already deleted the accounts.

Again, not necessarily a bad idea but where is the subpoena? It appears that the NC AG decided to get a civil investigative demand - essentially a subpoena without any court involvement to get around the provisions of NC § 15A 623(e) which provides "Grand jury proceedings are secret and...all persons present during its sessions shall keep its secrets and refrain from disclosing anything which transpires during any of its sessions", including presumably what documents are produced pursuant to a grand jury subpoena.

Cooper went on to note: "It's outrageous that MySpace chooses to protect the privacy of predators over the safety of children." Um, I think he meant the privacy of MySpace subscribers. Indeed, in the case of Freedman v. Am. Online, Inc., 325 F. Supp. 2d 638 (D. Va. 2004) AOL was successfully sued for giving out subscriber information without an effective warrant (the warrant was signed by one of the cops and not by a judge).

In another case, United States v. Hambrick, 55 F. Supp. 2d 504 (D. Va. 1999), the Court refused to suppress the subscriber information delivered to the cops when a Justice of the Peace who was also a police officer signed off on an invalid warrant.

In both Freedman and Hambrick, the ISP gave subscriber data to the cops without an effective warrant, and in both cases the courts found that the ISP could be held civilly liable for it. Cooper continued, "We will take action to require MySpace to give law enforcement and parents the information we need to protect our kids."

Bully! That's EXACTLY what he should do - take action to get the information, not waste time complaining to the press that MySpace wasn't doing HIS job. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said that he was "deeply disappointed by MySpace's disingenuous refusal to provide information about convicted sex offenders with profiles on its site".

He forgot to add, "without a subpoena or other legal process, or a demonstration of some exigency He also forgot to note that in the Freedman case, not only was AOL sued under the ECPA, but also under the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act ("CUTPA"), Conn. Gen. St. § 42-110a et seq, a statute that Blumenthal himself is charged with enforcing..."

This is not the first time that law enforcement agents have used public perception of a crisis to try to convince private entities to waive privacy policies and pony up information to the government without legal process. In the wake of September 11, the government used the threat of terrorism to get various airlines to pony up passenger information without any legal process. In both the United States and the UK, law enforcement officers have used examples of sexual assault to convince thousands of ordinary citizens to give DNA samples (cheek swabs) to clear them of any suspicion.

There is nothing to prevent the cops from publishing the names of people who refuse to consent to giving a "voluntary" DNA sample in order to shame or pressure them into consenting - creating in the public the impression that they must be guilty of the sexual assault or they would be willing to give the DNA sample in much the same way that the Attorneys General in the MySpace case are attempting to pressure MySpace into "consenting" to provide the subscriber information without a subpoena.

Indeed, in the DNA cases, once having obtained the DNA by "consent" there is no legal restriction on its use - the cops can retain the DNA samples obtained from innocent "volunteers" for years and compare them in every criminal or even civil cases. Such is the nature of "privacy."

Among the information requested by the AGs from MySpace was information such as the number of registered sex offenders with MySpace profiles. The Connecticut AG noted: "No subpoena is needed for much of the information we requested, such as the number of registered sex offenders with MySpace profiles. MySpace's failure to give us this essential data is inexplicable and inexcusable."

He neglected to mention that the demand also called for the names of the registered sex offenders on MySpace, and the states in which they reside. He added that legally MySpace can and must provide this information without a subpoena, noting: "The vague reference by MySpace to federal privacy laws certainly failed to justify a complete refusal to cooperate - or insistence on a subpoena for all information." MySpace didn't "completely refuse to cooperate", it just asked the AGs to comply with the law - or more accurately not force MySpace to break the law.

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Next page: Sex Offender Crimes

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