When a Tweet Is a Legitimate Threat
The latest case in the battle to balance privacy and public safety took place over the weekend, with law enforcement securing a user's Twitter information that the social media company was reluctant to provide.
Twitter and the New York Police Department butted heads Friday when their opposing values collided in the form of a series of Tweets promising violence. The NYPD, fearing potential mayhem and massacre on their hands, issued an emergency appeal to Twitter for the account holder's information, prompting many to wonder about the best way to handle these types of situations.
What Happened: A Twitter user in New York City threatened a shooting spree at Midtown's Longacre Theatre, currently running "Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth." The New York Police Department requested the anonymous account holder's registration information, but Twitter initially refused. After three days of reluctance and a subpoena, Twitter complied with the New York Police Department's request.
Law enforcement scanning Twitter were concerned about posts like, "I'm serious, people are gonna die like Aurora," and "I know they leave their exit doors unlocked," apparent references to the deadly shooting last month during a midnight screening of the latest Batman movie at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater.
What Really Happened: The culmination of violent attacks on citizens at public places and the belief social media can help prevent them raged over the weekend, as both sides made their respective cases.
Investigators sent Twitter an emergency request for the account information just before midnight on Friday. Twitter responded a couple of hours later, saying the details don't show the threat is "present, specific and immediate" enough to warrant emergency-disclosure action, fueled debate and media coverage of the incident.
Police investigators disagreed, saying a threat involving an identified location in the heart of the theater district merited immediate cooperation. They asked the Manhattan district attorney's office for a subpoena, which officers served to Twitter officials late Monday, according to the New York Times.
In this case, police were looking for answers to questions like who registered the account, when, where and how. Also, law enforcement could recover information such as the computer's IP, or Internet Protocol, and an e-mail address -- all pieces which could help in the puzzling investigation.
What's Next: The NYPD already formed a new unit to comb social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry messenger for information on planned crimes and to catch their perpetrators. Police credit the move with helping manage the growing incidence of flash robs in the U.S. The unit give public safety agencies a way to step-up their game to better protect citizens against these violent trends.
The incident also raises questions about proper boundaries in these investigations and join the case of an Occupy protestor's tweets were the latest to spark controversy over privacy on Twitter.
In July, New York City Criminal Court Judge Matthew Sciarrino upheld a court order for the information and told Twitter to hand over access to Harris' account, supporting the prosecution's argument that his tweets confirm he knew his actions in blocking a bridge during the protests were illegal.
In that case, Sciarrino said Twitter needed to give up Harris' account information because people using Twitter to communicate have no reasonable expectation for privacy.
The Takeaway: This case highlights law enforcement's increasing reliance on social media to thwart criminal activity as these agencies work to ferret out valid public safety threats.
The requests are increasing at an alarming speed, underscored by Twitter's recent transparency report, which shows the U.S. leads the global charge for information requests. Twitter reports it complies with 75 percent of U.S. requests without a subpoena.
Twitter's guidelines for law enforcement state, "If we receive information... that there is an emergency involving the death or serious physical injury to a person, we may provide information necessary to prevent that harm."
On "CBS This Morning" this week, Twitter co-founder and Executive Chairman Jack Dorsey added, "We always comply with local laws, and we also have to balance that with defending our users' voice, which we believe strongly in."
In both cases, Twitter handed over the requested information, but the questions over the best and most effective way to balance privacy with public safety will continue to swirl, testing the lines in this new frontier. ♦