I Swear, Officer, That Wasn’t My Twit

It really shouldn’t come as any surprise at all that twitter, the techno flavor of the day for those with a taste for brevity and collecting vast numbers of pointless followers, would eventually find itself on the police blotter. And it has.

From Techdirt,

[N]ow we’re seeing stories about some police departments that are actively using Twitter either to send out emergency alerts to people, or to better connect with the community they’re supposed to be protecting. Of course, that story worries about “impostors,” but there are ways to deal with that issue. For police looking to make use of the technology, it can be quite useful, and it’s great to see some actually realizing that and embracing the technology.

That’s how it starts.  Twitter is obviously a great delivery mechanism for bursts of information, provided that anyone is following.  It’s not merely a benign use of twitter, but a positive one.  Imagine that we all follow our local gendarmes to learn of emergencies in our area, like the tickers crossing the bottom of the TV screen.  It really is a great use.

But it won’t take long for the police to figure out that this form of communication, like all others, is a two way street.  Just as they can talk to us, it will dawn on someone that we are talking to each other.  By we, I mean persons of interest, targets, suspects and ordinary people who may be twitting about stuff that may be of interest to them. 

This is an invitation to entirely new forms of mischief.  How long before we have “secret followers,” with police intercepting twits of identified individuals in whom they have a particular interest?  What about general monitoring, with key words or algorithms that make a light go off on some spaceship-like panel in the bowels of some government building? 

And the nature of twitter, which has now gone from the refuge of middle-aged, balding, overweight men to more general acceptance, lends itself to far greater problems.  Because twits are a mere 140 characters, users tend to abbreviate, making their twits often appear somewhat coded.  Twitterers often send messages that make perfect sense to their intended recipients, but can hold very different meanings to others.  That twits seem to hold hidden meanings means that they are subject to facile post hoc interpretation.  Uh oh.

To any lawyer who has enjoyed leisurely reading the transcripts of intercepted telephone calls, including the parenthetical interpretation by special agents of what the parties “really” mean, the potential for misinterpretation of wholly innocent twits is obvious.  I remember once being caught on a wire, calling my mother from a client’s cellphone because it was her birthday and I had forgotten to call earlier (sorry, Mom), and reading a year later that the call was interpreted as a coded request for narcotics.  Once the judge scoffed at the interpretation, I laughed and laughed about it.  The other interpretations of conversations on the same phone weren’t nearly as funny.

Since twits are essentially a shout out to anyone who cares to follow, with the limited proviso that the reader isn’t blocked, it seems doubtful that there is any reasonable expectation of privacy involved.  Thus, twits are fair game for law enforcement.  They are a ripe source of information.  They are there for the picking.

It’s not that I’m trying to throw cold water on the thrill of twitting, the freedom and joy of expressing your every short thought whenever you want.  But when we twit we tend to forget that there are eyes and ears that may be following us more closely than others, and reading our more fascinating twits with an eye toward a purpose that may not be consistent with all the fun and joy of the twittersphere.  Just be keep it in mind.