Since most of us aren’t looking at websites via a Tor connection, we’re leaving digital footprints all over the place. The sites you visit may have a surprising amount of information on you, even if you’re not logged in, and even if you went to that site inadvertently. That’s why the Justice Department is trying to compel a web-hosting company to turn over everything it knows about anyone who ever clicked on a site that is critical of President Trump. It’s also why that company is fighting against this demand.
The company hosting the site, DreamHost, explained in a blog post what was going on.
It’s very common for tech companies, including hosting services, to get requests for data from law enforcement. DreamHost, like its peers, has a legal team in-house that receives search warrants and other requests and decides how to respond.
In the case of “vague or faulty orders,” DreamHost writes, the legal team “rejects or challenges” the requests. Including this one.
What do the feds want?
The Justice Department has requested that DreamHost provide a list of the IP address of every single visitor to the website.
That’s not just content creators or subscribers; that’s everyone who ever typed the address into their browser or clicked the link on Facebook. And it’s a list that’s 1.3 million visitors long.
Along with the IP addresses, DreamHost says, the warrant also asks for the dates and times of the visits, along with browser and operating system information.
In short, the feds are asking the site host to send them all the information they need to peg down exactly who visited the site, when, and from where.
There can be times when site visitor log information is absolutely vital to law enforcement activity. For example, if someone is accused of trying to plant a bomb, having proof that the suspect accessed a certain site about bomb-making, from their home, one week before planting the bomb, would be valuable information.
But that’s not what this request is. This warrant asks for the identifying information of every single person who visited a website during a period of time, full stop.
Why are they asking?
The site in question is disruptj20.org, created to help organize one of many protests set against the backdrop of President Trump’s Jan. 2017 inauguration.
Hundreds of protests were held nationwide during the inauguration weekend, Jan. 20-22, including the massive women’s marches, largely without incident.
But the DisruptJ20 protest, which occurred on Inauguration Day, resulted in more than 200 arrests. Many of those arrested have since been indicted on, and are now facing, felony rioting charges.
Many of the cases are still ongoing, and in various stages of investigation and prosecution. Although DreamHost did not have access to the specific reason why they were served this search warrant, it seems very likely to be related to those cases.
The answer: Nope!
DreamHost, the company writes, found the request to be “a strong example of investigatory overreach and a clear abuse of government authority,” and so they challenged the warrant.
This, the company says, is its standard procedure. But “instead of responding to our inquiries regarding the overbreadth of the warrant,” DreamHost writes, the Justice Department filed a motion asking for a court order to compel the records.
DreamHost is fighting back. The company filed arguments opposing the court order, and both the company and the DOJ will be arguing it out at a hearing on Friday, Aug. 18.
“Internet users have a reasonable expectation that they will not get swept up in criminal investigations simply by exercising their right to political speech against the government,” DreamHost concludes. “We intend to take whatever steps are necessary to support and shield these users from what is, in our view, a very unfocused search and an unlawful request for their personal information.”