Providers get many “emergency” requests for user info. How many, we don’t really know, although some providers have recently become more transparent about how many requests they receive each month. But whether a situation is an “emergency” or not may depend on how imminent the threat is. Does someone tweeting a death threat from Florida about a specific named target in New York constitute an emergency?
After initially declining an emergency request from the NYPD over tweeted threats to kill Mike Tyson, who is appearing in a Broadway show, Twitter complied with a subpoena issued by the Manhattan DA’s office.
Whether they stuck to their policy of notifying users first is unknown at this time.
In light of references to the Aurora massacre by the tweeter, there will be those who think that Twitter should have complied immediately. But if the intended killer – assuming the tweets were serious – was in Florida, how imminent was the threat? Tyson was not at the theatre or in imminent danger that way and could have simply stayed home or in a secure environment while police investigated and took action.
But – and this is a big “but” – although the info was first requested late Friday night, and denied a few hours later, the subpoena was not delivered to Twitter until late Monday. Twitter reportedly complied with it on Tuesday. Was the delay in obtaining and serving the subpoena really necessary? Could the police have gotten a subpoena and served it on Saturday? What took until Monday if this was urgent? Certainly by Monday, a determined killer could have been in New York and Tyson (and theatre-goers) in more imminent danger.
News analysts in the media that I’ve heard this morning are being somewhat critical of Twitter. I understand their concerns. But this is a good opportunity to discuss what constitutes an emergency under providers’ policies. When all is said and done, Twitter may have been correct in saying that there was no imminent threat that precluded police from getting a court’s oversight. But what if the tweeter had indicated that s/he was getting on a plane and heading to NY to implement the plan? Would Twitter have complied then, or it would it still have held out for a subpoena or court oversight?
I hope Twitter blogs about this situation and clarifies why they didn’t view it as falling under their emergency disclosure provisions.