Thursday, January 15, 2009

Activist group sues UC, claiming illegal search

Our friends - and privacy champions - over at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the ACLU of Northern California filed suit in federal court yesterday to protect the privacy and free speech rights of two San Francisco Bay Area community organizations.

The reason? Hold on to your hats for this "Big Brother" abomination: The groups' computers were seized and the data copied by federal and local law enforcement. I don't think its by accident, knowing this administration, that these two organizations - Long Haul and the East Bay Prisoner Support Group (EBPS) - are publishers of information for social and political activists.

As noted by the ACLU, "Long Haul is an all-volunteer collective that publishes a newspaper called Slingshot and provides community space, computer access, and a lending library of radical books to members of the public at its Infoshop in Berkeley, California. EBPS publishes a newsletter of prisoners' writings, distributes literature to prisoners, and occupies an office at Long Haul."

According to the suit, these were illegal intrusions on groups that were not suspected of any wrongdoing and also violated their constitutional rights as publishers of their own newspapers.

EFF's Civil Liberties Director Jennifer Granick stated: "The Slingshot and EBPS computers were clearly marked and kept behind locked doors," said "Yet the raid officers broke into the offices to take information these organizations collected and relied on to publish information to their readership. This is a blatant violation of federal law and the First and Fourth Amendments, interfering with the freedom of the press."

Michael Risher, staff attorney at the ACLU of Northern California, concurred: “As long as the government keeps the copies they made of these hard drives, they are continuing to violate the privacy of everyone who wrote or stored a document on the computers. We filed this lawsuit to protect fundamental rights and to stop these illegal searches from happening in the future."

This has the flavor of one of those stories that gets worse and worse the more we learn. It kind of reminds me of those stories about government agents going undercover, and participating in small gatherings organized by benign peace groups that did nothing wrong except opposing illegal US wars. Or in other words, this reeks of an ideological hit job orchestrated by the government against the people.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports:

The suit says the officers broke open locked doors and cabinets, seized all 14 computers in the building, combed through library and bookstore records, and took computer drives and other items from both Long Haul and East Bay Prisoner Support. The computers were later returned, but the organizations have reason to believe their files were copied, the suit said.

"The police should have treated us with the same respect due to any library whose public-access computers they suspected had been used for improper activity," said Jessy Palmer, a Long Haul volunteer named in the detective's affidavit as the subscriber to the computer where the messages were sent. "Instead of asking for our assistance, they used their investigation as an excuse to break into Long Haul."

The suit contends the search warrant was invalid because UC police offered no evidence that the two organizations were involved in illegal acts and also failed to tell the judge that both groups publish newspapers, a status that requires special justification for law enforcement searches.

This will be a case I will follow here. I'd like to know for one, whether these records have indeed been kept, and two, whether they have been used for anything in particular. Lots of questions that remain unanswered.

Click here to read the Chronicle article.

Or click here to read the write up by the ACLU's Nicole Ozer on the suit.

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