BY JONATHAN VALANIA FOR THE PHILADELPHIA WEEKLY On January 30th, 2009 Kristina Clair — a Linux administrator living in Philadelphia, who just happens to share server space with Indymedia.us, a left-leaning online news aggregator — received a subpoena from a federal prosecutor in Indiana demanding the web site’s visitor logs in conjunction with an undisclosed grand jury investigation. Specifically, the visitor log for June 25th, 2008.
The subpoena did not just ask for specific names or IP addresses; instead it demanded the names and IP addresses of all 10,000-plus people who visited the site on that day, where they came from and where they went next. Furthermore, the subpoena gave Clair a final, ominous instruction: “You are not to disclose the existence of this request unless authorized by the Assistant U.S. Attorney.”
“I was a little scared and confused at first,” says Clair. “But then I realized I didn’t have the info they were asking for.” In the interest of preserving visitor privacy, Indymedia erases visitor logs after five weeks. Clair contacted the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit online privacy and civil liberties watchdog group headquartered in San Francisco. Amongst other things, the EFF is currently in the midst of suing the federal government for the Bush Administration’s illegal and unconstitutional surveillance of all U.S. communications after 9/11 — phone calls, email and Internet use.
EFF provided Clair with pro bono legal representation, namely senior staff attorney Kevin Bankston, who assured Clair that Indymedia’s lack of visitor logs rendered the subpoena meaningless. However, Bankston was disturbed by an apparent instance of the government using over-broad subpoenas to go on a fishing expedition and he wondered many other federal prosecutors are abusing their subpoena powers in this manner. MORE