PigSpotter at risk after Twitter hands over private data?

Twitter recently released the personal information of a user known as “Mr Monkey” to South Tyneside Council in north-east England, who took the popular microblogging service to court in California in a bid to discover the identity of a blogger behind allegedly libellous statements.

The Guardian reported that Twitter provided the name, e-mail address and telephone number of Ahmed Kahn, the South Tyneside councilman accused of the offence, to the council.

According to Guardian, the subpoena ordered Twitter to hand over 30 pieces of information relating to several Twitter accounts, including @fatcouncillor and @ahmedkhan01.

They said that the move to use California courts is “likely to be seen as a landmark moment in the internet privacy battle.”

PigSpotter in danger of similar action?

Pria Chetty, a technology law specialist and founder of Chetty Law, said that a number of challenges may have led police to consider alternative methods of dispute resolution preferable to using the courts.

The first of these challenges, Chetty said, is that for the South African Police Service (SAPS) or other law enforcement authorities in SA to obtain personal information of a user of online services, they would require a court order that compels the online service provider to hand over such records.

Pria Chetty
Pria Chetty

“Failure to abide by the court order could have serious consequences for the online service provider and such service providers typically comply,” Chetty said.

This is why the privacy policies of online service providers usually say that compliance with a court order is an exception to the standard non-disclosure practices of the provider, Chetty added.

Chetty went on to explain that the first problem with getting a court order is that law enforcement needs information that will convince a judge the order is necessary. “Which is no easy task,” Chetty said.

The offence would have to be sufficiently clear. Judges are also reluctant to grant a court order that may potentially violate the constitutional right to privacy in the absence of concrete information and substantiation, explained Chetty.

Another complexity Chetty highlighted is that the issue of jurisdiction continues to frustrate investigation and prosecution of so-called “cyberoffences.”

Chetty said that until workable international co-operative methods are realised, law enforcement of many countries are challenged in their attempts to effectively investigate offences or obtain records using traditional methods such as court orders.

Nicholas Hall from Michalsons Attorneys said that the SAPS could use a similar action to try and get Twitter to reveal PigSpotter’s identity, but also said that they would face some problems.

The court order needed to get Twitter to reveal his account details must be issued from a Californian Court, Hall said. A South African court order won’t be accepted.

According to Hall the the SAPS would have to:

  1. Get a ‘John Doe’ order issued in the United States to get twitter to reveal the account.
  2. To get the order issued they would need to prove that there is a case against PigSpotter.

However, even assuming that the SAPS did get the order, it may not be that useful, Hall said.

“In all likelihood the details will be fake and ultimately the SAPS will have to use IP address information to track down PigSpotter,” Hall said. This in turn would present a different set of challenges.

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PigSpotter at risk after Twitter hands over private data?