New York City Subpoenas TXTmob For All Text Messages Sent At Republican Convention

from the seems-a-bit-extreme dept

Over the last few years, with the growing recognition of the concept of “flash mobs” or “smart mobs” it’s no surprise that various tools have been created to help manage large crowds of diverse individuals who converge for a single purpose. One of those was a project called TXTmob, which was widely used in 2004 by people protesting the Republican National Convention in New York City. Lots of folks used the service to send out group messages to others participating, and to quickly organize and disperse as necessary. As you may recall, there were some confrontations between protesters and the police, resulting in a bunch of arrests. Many of those arrested claim that the arrests were unfair, and have sued the city. As part of its defense, lawyers for New York City have now sent a broad subpoena to the guy who created and ran TXTmob demanding, among other things, many of the text messages sent via the service, including the identities of the senders and recipients. Needless to say, this seems like an overly broad request — and Tad Hirsch, the MIT PhD. student who set up the service, claims that much of that information no longer exists. Even if it did exist, it seems to be overstepping privacy bounds to demand that Hirsch hand over such information, especially without any specifics included. The whole thing smacks of using subpoenas to intimidate people.

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Comments on “New York City Subpoenas TXTmob For All Text Messages Sent At Republican Convention”

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Jake says:

I’m with you up to a point. If the NYPD had requested this data in order to try and identify the perpetrators of any offences committed then I’d say that was a pretty reasonable request, depending on the severity of the felonies involved; however, whilst the online NYT article peters out before it gets specific, this business wasn’t exactly the Poll Tax Riots.
At any rate, if the NYPD decided that there was nothing to be gained from going over TXTmob’s records, I don’t know what the city’s lawyers think they’re going to find that officers of a highly-regarded police department couldn’t. And if the NYPD actually tried to get hold of this data but were denied a search warrant, one would think that might set a rather strong precedent against it being considered admissible in a civil court.

Chronno S. Trigger says:

Re: Re:

These people are suing the city. Unless I am completely mistaken about how a lawsuit works, I think their names are available. To demand all txt messages and all information about the sender and recipients is above and beyond necessary.

If the layers believe that the messages and information would be helpful in this case than they can subpoena for a specific person’s/people’s information. You know, like their supposed to.

Jake says:

Re: Re: Re:

I was actually under the impression that subpoenas had to receive approval at a pre-trial hearing, at least in some jurisdictions. I’m not automatically disposed to sympathise with the wrongful arrest lawsuits -it would probably be instructive to learn what percentage of those suing bothered to go through the department’s complaints procedure first- but I’d still be very interested to know how they got this subpoena past a judge if that’s the case in the State of New York.

y8 says:

Is it legal?

First, Jake has it completly backwards. The rules of evidence (as well as subpoenas) are way more relaxed in civil court that in criminal court. Also, the individuals bringing the suit should expect some invasion of privacy when they bring a wrongful arrest suit. The burdon of proof is on them.

Second, the NYPD are not looking for 100,000’s of texts (unless I’m way off in the scope of the protests). They are only looking for those texts that went through this one TXTmob service. And I’m sure professor liberal at MIT would never destroy evidence on purpose.

Finally, I agree, if they know who is involved, it shouldn’t be hard to just subpoena the messages sent and received by those people. I would expect they could get the messages for anyone involved in the lawsuit, and they should be able to get the messages for anyone that was arrested during the protest. The main problem here is that it is possible to use someone else’s phone, or even use a pay-as-you-go phone with no trace to you. And even though they are Democrats, some of them are probably smart enough not to use their own phone to create a civil disturbance.

Jake says:

Re: Is it legal?

Thanks for that, y8; I’d figured the rules were looser in civil cases but I’m pretty sure that this is marginal for what the law permits. Apart from anything else, going through every single text message for what’s relevant will almost certainly drag things out enormously; that might even be the intent.

And I think you missed my earlier point; if the NYPD thought that TXTmob had been used to orchestrate the clashes with the police, or that they were orchestrated at all for that matter, why have we heard nothing about them wishing to obtain TXTmob’s records?

Rose M. Welch says:

The point is not that...

…the people involved in the suit should have complete privacy. It’s that the people not involved in the suit should have as much privacy as thier TOS says they can have.

Please also note that it a broad supoena, meaning it says something very generalistic. I wouldn’t be suprised to find that the judge didn’t think they were going to use it to supoena a large group of text messages like that because he didn’t know about the technology.

Why can’t they supoena the text message records of individuals involved in the suit from thier individual providers?

y8 says:


Well, obviously, it depends on the judge, but I’ve seen some VERY relaxed rules of evidence and testimony in civil cases.

I don’t think that the NYPD thought there was nothing there to look at. I think the article says that NYPD’s subpoena was denied during the criminal trial. Maybe for the same reason, it may have been too broad in scope for a criminal proceeding.

And what do you consider dragging things out? This case is related to offences at the 2004 RNC. 4 years seems like a long time to me.

And as for Rose, the argument of the defence in this case is that the TXTmob service was used to orchistrate civil disobedience. The service basically broadcasts text messages to a group. So it would be important to show that a person or group of people was orchistrating group movement using the TXTmob service. That would require matching the actual messages and the timing of the messages with the movement/actions of the protestors. That coordination of effort is what would be referred to as conspiracy. It would probably not be possible to prove the conspiracy without showing the scale of the TXTmob interaction, which in turn would require the aforementioned subpoena request for TXTmob’s records.

I agree that anyone not involded with the civil suit, and specially anyone not arrested should have their privacy protected, but that can be done while still using all of TXTmob’s records.

I also agree that this is a daunting task, and maybe a huge waste of time and taxpayers’ money, but if the NYPD doesn’t fight the civil suit to the extreme, the city will be forced to pay some rediculous settlement amount to the ALCU or whome ever is representing the plaintiffs.

Jake says:


I’m somewhat dubious of your definition of ‘civil disobedience’; as far as I can make out, the protests were intended to be non-violent and largely lawful, despite a few morons who think they’re Malcolm X trying to start a punch-up. If it were anything different the NYPD could -and perhaps should- have invoked the PATRIOT Act, because if conspiring to commit acts of violence against members and/or supporters of the ruling political party isn’t terrorism then I don’t know what it is.

To address your second question, as I understand it both legal teams are now on the clock. Subpoenaing vast quantities of irrelevant data will increase the cost to the claimants and increase the pressure to drop the case or settle out-of-court. A naturally cynical person such as myself might theorise that this is precisely what the defence team had in mind.

Rose M. Welch says:

If they wrongfully arrested people...

…then why shouldn’t they have to pay a huge settlement?

It’s kind of a circular argument. The police arrested people for X reason. The arrested folks complained that it was wrongful for Y reason. The police say, “We can prove it was good; we just need Z information.”.

But if they need Z information to prove they were correct arrests, they should already have it. That’s how they knew who to arrest and why, right?

They should go to court with the information they used to make the arrests, and then let the judge and jury decide the rest. If the info they had prior to the arrests wasn’t good enough to justify the arrests, then they shouldn’t have made them.

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