March 31, 2008

Locating the Front Lines [9:55 am]

City Subpoenas Creator of Text Messaging Code

These tableaus and others were described as they happened in text messages that spread from mobile phone to mobile phone in New York City and beyond. The people sending and receiving the messages were using technology, developed by an anonymous group of artists and activists called the Institute for Applied Autonomy, that allowed users to form networks and transmit messages to hundreds or thousands of telephones.

Although the service, called TXTmob, was widely used by demonstrators, reporters and possibly even police officers, little was known about its inventors. Last month, however, the New York City Law Department issued a subpoena to Tad Hirsch, a doctoral candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who wrote the code that created TXTmob.

Lawyers representing the city in lawsuits filed by hundreds of people arrested during the convention asked Mr. Hirsch to hand over voluminous records revealing the content of messages exchanged on his service and identifying people who sent and received messages. Mr. Hirsch says that some of the subpoenaed material no longer exists and that he believes he has the right to keep other information secret.

“There’s a principle at stake here,” he said recently by telephone. “I think I have a moral responsibility to the people who use my service to protect their privacy.”

[...] It is difficult to know for sure who received messages, but an examination of police surveillance documents prepared in 2003 and 2004, and unsealed by a federal magistrate last year, makes it clear that the authorities were aware of TXTmob at least a month before the Republican convention began.

A document marked “N.Y.P.D. SECRET” and dated July 26, 2004, included the address of the TXTmob Web site and stated, “It is anticipated that text messaging is one of several different communications systems that will be utilized to organize the upcoming RNC protests.”

From the Txtmob site:

UPDATE: 29 Mar 2008
As reported in the New York Times, I have recently been subpoenaed by the City of New York in connection to several active lawsuits against the City that allege police misconduct during the 2004 Republican National Convention. I want to reassure all past and present TXTmob users that I take their privacy seriously, and that I am taking what actions I can to protect their civil liberties. I also want to publicly thank David Rankin (Law Office of David B. Rankin) and Matt Zimmerman (Electronic Frontier Foundation) for providing legal representation.

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