Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
The Guardian reported:
“The warrant covers the people who own and operate the site, but also seeks to get the IP addresses of 1.3 million people who visited it, as well as the date and time of their visit, and information about what browser or operating system they used.”
There are a variety of concerning aspects to this set of events. First, and most obviously, are those related to the First Amendment (freedom of speech and assembly) and the Fourth Amendment (protection from unreasonable search and seizure). The Department of Justice wants the IP addresses of every visitor to the site—and from that information the physical location of each visitor can be ascertained. It makes identification not all that difficult. Besides freedom of speech, there are questions about the scope of the warrant. The Fourth Amendment makes it clear a warrant must specify locations to be searched and probable cause. Orin Kerr noted in the Washington Post:
“Courts have allowed the government to get a suspect’s entire email account, which the government can then search through for evidence. But is the collective set of records concerning a website itself so extensive that it goes beyond what the Fourth Amendment allows? In the physical world, the government can search only one apartment in an apartment building with a single warrant; it can’t search the entire apartment building.”
Additionally, one has to be concerned that one branch of government would use their power to collect private information about citizens it feels threatened by. It looks like a personal score to settle. People who disagree with the executive branch are to be identified—and to what end specifically? Over 200 people have already been charged with felony rioting at the inauguration. Why does the Department of Justice need to identify 1.3 million people who might disagree with the executive branch? It is frightening not only for civil liberties but for what it can mean on the slippery slope of settling political scores with citizens. Ask the Mothers of the Disappeared in Argentina: This is dangerous.
At the end of June, the executive branch asked the states to turn over voter registration information for the voter fraud commission. The information requested voter rolls, dates of birth and the last four digits of social security numbers. North Carolina’s bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement announced it would turn over publicly available information to the commission, but not social security numbers and dates of birth. Some states have refused to comply. I have to admit: The possibility of finding oneself purged from the voter rolls is a scary idea.
About 10 years ago, I found myself dropped from the voter registration rolls. It was a bit of a surprise; I showed up on election day and was informed I was not registered to vote in New Hanover County. The poll worker asked if I had registered to vote?
“Yes,” I answered. “I have voted at this precinct location for the past six years. I usually come in with one of my parents and we would take turns standing with the dog outside, because ‘a family that votes together stays together.’”
After much hemming and hawing with the poll workers, I was given a provisional ballot. I sorted out my registration and, thankfully (fingers crossed), have not had a problem since.
I come from a family that makes voting a priority. I am comfortable advocating for that right with people in positions of authority.
Recently, my household went through the citizenship process and one of the recurring themes in the process was voting is one of the most important ways to participate in a democracy and preform a civic duty. At the Naturalization Ceremony, the League of Women Voters were standing by with voter registration forms for each of the newly sworn-in citizens.
It doesn’t take a giant leap of imagination to see those two lists overlap: Who visited a website the executive branch dislikes and who voted against the candidate in the last election? Where there is a match, how hard would it be to drop a name from the rolls? As far-fetched as this would have sounded 18 months ago, it is just not hard to imagine right now. If they control who can vote, they can control who wins an election. The timing of demanding these two sets of data is startling and frightening.
Dreamhost is challenging in the warrant and a hearing is scheduled on August 18. What is possibly more frightening than the above scenario is the possibility this is just a litmus test. If successful, where does it stop? What speech and assembly freedoms could we lose?
In the wake of the events at Charlottesville and escalating concern regarding North Korea—which strike a primal and emotional chord—it is hard to focus on something as dry as a justice department warrant. But that is exactly why it is important. The events surrounding the warrant and what happens with the information gathered will directly impact the public’s ability to talk back to power and speak freely.
Allowing one branch of the government to target citizens who disagree is dangerous The possibilities of the internet are a fascinating double-edged sword. Never before in history have we had the ability to share information, opinions and ideas with such immediacy. Social media and web tools can allow for assemblies with short notice on a scale not previously imagined—and the documentation of the assemblies can be shared and made available around the world as they unfold. But the footprint and trackability of online activity is the other side of the coin. Potentially targeting someone’s voting rights based upon political opinions is not what the constitution intends.
It’s important: protecting citizen’s rights to vote, speak and participate in democracy. It is essential to our future.