Puerto Rico's Justice Department Demanded Info From Facebook About Journalists Who Livestreamed Protests

from the not-how-that-works dept

Historically, the DOJ hasn’t really let the First Amendment stand in the way of its investigations. In very recent history, the FBI has targeted journalists to hunt down leakers, and has impersonated journalists during investigations. While the DOJ and FBI have dealt with some limited repercussions due to their targeting of First Amendment activities (which includes targeting Muslims because they’re Muslims), it really hasn’t promised to stop doing this. Nor has it been told to stop doing this. Instead, the DOJ has simply made it slightly more difficult for investigators to violate people’s rights.

The Intercept has done some investigating of its own and discovered the FBI actively engaged in First Amendment violations for years during its partnership with Puerto Rican law enforcement agencies.

For decades, Puerto Rico’s police department operated an intelligence unit dedicated to spying on dissidents. With the knowledge of the FBI, police officers created a file, known as a carpeta, for anyone who could be construed as a supporter of Puerto Rican independence or other environmental or labor causes. Officers recruited neighbors, friends, and relatives to collect information about those targeted, and planted rumors that led to divorce, job loss, and irreparable discord within communities and families.

75,000 of these files were created. This secret surveillance was finally revealed in 1987 and was ruled unconstitutional in 1988 by a Puerto Rican court. That should have ended it. Instead, the surveillance of First Amendment-protected activities is alive and well, headed by the island’s Justice Department. Seven students are facing charges related to a nonviolent anti-austerity protest held in 2017. To locate the suspects it wanted to charge, the Justice Department targeted the student publications that streamed footage of the demonstration.

The documents released to defense attorneys provide… evidence of a broad and invasive hunt for prosecutable crimes related to the protests. An agent from the cybercrimes unit of Puerto Rico’s Justice Department sought a search warrant for the records of virtually every Facebook interaction over a 72-hour period with the three publications that livestreamed the protest. The agent obtained private messages with the publications’ followers and detailed information about the student journalists who managed the pages.

The warrant demanded everything. It asked Facebook to hand over searches performed by page administrators, any content that had been deleted, GPS coordinates for posts, IMSI numbers from associated phones, and billing records. The agent working for the Justice Department claimed this was a normal thing to do during an investigation of an incident where no one was arrested, saying all this was needed to collect “evidence” of supposed criminal activity.

Again, the protest being investigated resulted in only a small amount of property damage and zero arrests. Only in hindsight did Puerto Rican law enforcement decide some people needed to be prosecuted and, bizarrely, decided to start this investigation by demanding information about journalists who did nothing more than record the demonstration.

Unfortunately, this sort of thing seems to be increasing, rather than being relegated to law enforcement agencies’ pasts. The protests that greeted Trump’s inauguration did result in property damage and violence, but the investigation started with broad demands for data on the 1.2 million visitors to a protest group’s website.

This investigation also involved a protest, one that lasted only a half-hour, and resulted in a broken glass door and some damaged furniture. This led to an investigation where 1,553 pages of information about student journalists were handed over to the Justice Department by Facebook. And for what? To investigate people who weren’t even participating in the protest? To give the government evidence it doesn’t even appear to be interested in using in this case?

Collateral damage to rights is something to be taken seriously. Targeting one First Amendment activity (protesting) through the Facebook pages of another First Amendment activity (journalism) is pretty much the worst way to investigate anything. In this case, the obvious problems were made worse by the government’s inability (or unwillingness) to narrow the scope of data demands. And the demand for info should never have been approved by any level of oversight (judicial or otherwise) without more restrictions being put in place.

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Comments on “Puerto Rico's Justice Department Demanded Info From Facebook About Journalists Who Livestreamed Protests”

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12 Comments
Thad (profile) says:

Re: A reminder/refresher

While it’s true that people born in PR are US citizens, you seem to be implying that people who aren’t US citizens don’t have due process rights or First Amendment protections.

That’s completely wrong. While there are parts of the US Constitution that are restricted to citizens (for example, ability to run for office), due process and freedom of speech and the press are for everybody.

Bruce C. says:

Good on the intercept

For digging up the historical context for these apparent rights violations. Though IMO you buried the lede on that part:
"The existence of the carpetas was revealed only after two University of Puerto Rico students were lured by an informant into the mountains in 1978 and executed by police. " Google "Cerro Maravilla" for more details.

Zof (profile) says:

The most important thing to know about HOA's is...

Almost none of them are operating legally. They take advantage of your ignorance and fear of confrontation to punk you into accepting their bullshit. It’s always worth it to fight them in court, because you will almost always win, and any realtor worth a shit will "fail" to mention the HOA for you if you ask so you can say it wasn’t a condition of your purchase, and you can tell them to go pound sand when they show up with their shitty walmart cake or rice crispie bars.

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