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A Federal Court Approved Chevron's Request for Activists' Data

It’s not just the NSA collecting your data. Now corporations are getting in on the game as well.
Image: Flickr

It’s not just the NSA collecting your data. Now corporations are getting in on the game as well.

Oil giant Chevron just subpoenaed Google, Yahoo and Microsoft for the metadata of over 100 journalists, activists, and lawyers who have been critical of the company, claiming their targets had formed a criminal conspiracy. And a federal judge not only upheld the subpoena—he also ruled that because the journalists and activists were anonymously named, they had no recourse to First Amendment rights, and could not even be counted as US citizens.


Chevron’s ire was first invoked when the company lost a $18.2 billion lawsuit in Ecuador over environmental contamination, in which the multinational was sued over dumping toxic waste into Amazonian rivers, causing massive damage to the rainforest and poisoning the local indigenous people’s drinking water.

Its response to their court loss in Ecuador? Chevron filed a new lawsuit in the United States against more than a hundred journalists, activists and lawyers that the company is alleging were directly or indirectly involved in the Ecuador suit, or who have been critical of the company—claiming that the plaintiffs were conspiring to defraud them. (Chevron brought suit against the plaintiffs under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations or RICO Act, used to try criminal conspiracies.) As part of the lawsuit, it's subpoenaed Google, Yahoo and Microsoft for all of the metadata associated with their targets’ e-mail addresses.

Despite pushback from the Electronic Freedom Foundation and EarthRights International, the enforceability of the subpoena was approved by US District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan in New York—meaning that Chevron would be given, according to Kaplan:

“…the IP address associated with every login for every account over a nine-year period. Chevron could identify the countries, states, or even cities where the users logged into accounts, and perhaps, in some instances, could determine the actual building addresses.


“Chevron would not learn who logged into the accounts. That is to say that Chevron would know who created (or purported to create) the email accounts but would not know if there was a single user or multiple users for each account. Nevertheless, the subpoenaed information might allow Chevron to infer the movements of the users over the relevant period (at a high level of generality) and might permit Chevron to make inferences about some of the users’ professional and personal relationships.”

Here’s the kicker: Because the activists and journalists targeted by Chevron were proceeding anonymously, and presumably because the original lawsuit was in Ecuador, Kaplan assumed they were not US citizens—and therefore not entitled to First Amendment protection. In fact, Kaplan may have approved the subpoena because those named had not shown themselves to be US citizens.

So now we have the terror of dealing with corporations vindictively culling data—possibly even more frightening than NSA spying, as there’s a certain comforting miasma of bureaucratic incompetence and red tape associated with the federal government that corporations simply don’t have.

But even more disturbing is the potential legal precedent that anonymity can deprive an individual of not only First Amendment rights, but even treatment as a citizen of the country they’re being tried in.

Anonymous may want to reconsider its approach right about now.

Jason Louv runs the group futurist blog and mainlines data from the dark side at @jasonlouv