Subpoena raises privacy danger for registration-based websites

This story on the arrest last night of Phoenix New Times owners Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin raises some real concerns for online privacy – in particular for news organisations who require readers to register in order to read.

“a grand jury subpoena was issued for information about the online readers of the paper.

“The authorities are also using the grand jury subpoenas in an attempt to research the identity, purchasing habits, and browsing proclivities of our online readership,” they wrote in their article, “Breathtaking Abuse of the Constitution,” which was published yesterday.

“After the piece appeared, Lacey and Larkin were both arrested for writing about the subpoena, on the theory that publishing an article violated the secrecy of grand jury proceedings.

“it’s clearly not a good sign for the First Amendment when law enforcement authorities think they’re entitled to know information about people who visit a newspaper’s Web site.

“What’s more, it’s one more example of the unintended results that can come from collecting information for marketing purposes. While publishers might have good reasons for wanting to compile detailed profiles of online readers, Web users also need to be able visit newspaper Web sites without worrying that their identities will be disclosed.

“Here, it’s not clear whether the Arizona courts would have demanded that the newspaper comply with the subpoena; nor is it clear whether the newspaper even has the information that was requested. But if the courts and/or publishers don’t take steps to protect readers’ privacy in this kind of situation, it’s not far-fetched to conclude that Web visitors will decide to take matters into their own hands — by deleting cookies, using anonymizers to browse the Web or simply providing false information.”

The piece by Lacey and Larkin mentions the following requests:

The subpoena demands: “Any and all documents containing a compilation of aggregate information about the Phoenix New Times Web site created or prepared from January 1, 2004 to the present, including but not limited to :

A) which pages visitors access or visit on the Phoenix New Times website;

B) the total number of visitors to the Phoenix New Times website;

C) information obtained from ‘cookies,’ including, but not limited to, authentication, tracking, and maintaining specific information about users (site preferences, contents of electronic shopping carts, etc.);

D) the Internet Protocol address of anyone that accesses the Phoenix New Times website from January 1, 2004 to the present;

E) the domain name of anyone that has accessed the Phoenix New Times website from January 1, 2004 to the present;

F) the website a user visited prior to coming to the Phoenix New Times website;

G) the date and time of a visit by a user to the Phoenix New Times website;

H) the type of browser used by each visitor (Internet Explorer, Mozilla, Netscape Navigator, Firefox, etc.) to the Phoenix New Times website; and

I) the type of operating system used by each visitor to the Phoenix New Times website.”  

People concerned about this move may want to check out Bugmenot.com, which provides generic logins for websites, effectively anonymising some of your browsing – but not information such as operating system, browser, IP address, etc. To hide your IP address you may need to resort to the anonymous network Tor or Anonymizer.com.

Here’s the article by Lacey & Larkin. I’ll reprint it in full in the next post just in case it gets pulled.

1 thought on “Subpoena raises privacy danger for registration-based websites

  1. Colin Campbell

    Outrageous and sure to kill the development of online media. I seem to remember that much of the information that we fill in on these kinds of sites is assumed to be private. These people can just fuck off.

    Reply

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