After the US Department of Justice demanded from DreamHost data that could identify visitors of anti-Trump website Disruptj20.org and the web host refused to comply with such an unreasonably broad request for data, the DOJ narrowed the scope of its demand by excluding unpublished media and HTTP access and error logs from it.
On Thursday, District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Robert Morin ruled that DreamHost must comply with the narrowed warrant, but has further limited the government’s access to the asked-for data, in order to limit exposure of sensitive user information.
He has asked the federal prosecutors to present a list of investigators who will have access to the data and list of methods they will be using to go through it to find information pertinent to their investigation. The investigation aims to find out who’s responsible for property damage in downtown Washington during the Inauguration Day protests.
“The production of evidence from this trove of data will be overseen by the court. The DOJ is not permitted to perform this search in a bubble. It is, in fact, now required to make its case with the court to justify why they believe information acquired is or is not responsive to (aka: ‘covered by’) the warrant,” DreamHost explained.
“The court will then seal any information that is acquired but then deemed to be ‘not responsive.’ After that point, this information will not be available to the government without a court order.
Finally, the DOJ is forbidden from sharing the content of the responsive information with other government agencies.
A victory for user privacy?
DreamHost considers the verdict a “privacy win for all internet users and for any service providers that host user-generated content online.” Nevertheless, they have still not decided whether they will appeal the decision or not.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation said they are glad to see that the judge is taking steps to oversee the government’s “narrowed” search.
Still, they are worried that this “overseizure” could still have a chilling effect on dissenter activities and speech.
“As in other cases involving digital searches, EFF believes the government’s access to the data should be limited in advance to ensure that it complies with the Fourth Amendment. This could include the use of a neutral third party or special master entrusted with the task of parsing through the relevant evidence to be turned over to law enforcement in order to limit government access to user data to which it has no probable cause to collect,” EFF Criminal Defense Staff Attorney Stephanie Lacambra noted.
“Similarly, the government could be required to expressly articulate ex ante search protocols that outline specific limiting factors (for example: account names or handles, date and time ranges, keywords, file type or size) that can be subject to judicial review. Without these safeguards in place, the fear of unchecked government intrusion may chill individuals from across he ideological spectrum form engaging in the very public discourse that the Bill of Rights is intended to protect.”