Border Agents Misuse Customs Regs to Try to Unmask 'Rogue' Twitter Account (Update: Attempt Withdrawn!)

This week in 'Privacy for me but not for thee.'


Aprescindere /

Agents from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) are attempting to force Twitter to reveal the real name of an account user. Twitter is taking them to court to try to stop them, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has jumped on board to represent the user him or herself to protect their anonymity.

Is this somebody accused of human trafficking? Maybe some violent drug smuggler? Some criminal CBP is responsible is trying to take down? No, it doesn't seem so.

In fact, CBP doesn't seem to have provided any evidence at all of criminal wrongdoing when it faxed over to Twitter an order to turn over private info from an account. From all appearances they're trying to unmask a trouble-maker (or several of them) claiming to be rebellious immigration officials who oppose President Donald Trump's massive deportation and border control efforts.

The account CBP is trying to get the goods on operates under the handle @ALT_uscis and the name "ALT Immigration." It is one of several Twitter accounts that popped up after Trump's inauguration claiming to represent officials at various federal agencies intending to resist Trump's agendas from within. To be clear, though: This doesn't mean these Twitter accounts actually are run by federal employees with inside information. Anybody can claim to be anything on the Internet. Many of these "rogue" accounts are likely to be totally fake.

But in the event this Twitter user actually is real, at least two CBP agents are trying to find out who he is. According to a lawsuit filed yesterday in Northern California on behalf of Twitter, the agents didn't even bother to claim that the Twitter account was connected to criminal activity. Instead, they used what is obviously some boilerplate customs text used to examine import records. That's actually the federal regulation they invoke as well—according to the lawsuit, the CBP agent invoked a federal law designed to permit the feds to crack open a business's books to investigate data connected to importing goods as an authority to demand Twitter reveal an account user's name.

So Twitter is both resisting to protect the anonymity of its users from unmasking that is tied to no criminal complaint whatsoever and also pointing out that this is not the federal code used when the government does have what it believes to be a legitimate reason.

There is, given the circumstances, a desire to want to raise an eyebrow at the Trump administration right now because of its outrage that the identities of members of Trump's transition team may have been unmasked in intelligence reports connected to surveillance of foreign officials. Media coverage of this weird little fight is heavy on emphasizing that Twitter is suing the "Trump administration" in order to suppress the order to reveal the user's identity.

But it would not and should not come as a surprise—given the general incompetence in how the demand was administered—if we were to discover that these CBP agents were acting on their own and that this whole effort doesn't actually go that far up the chain of authority. In the end, this feels more reminiscent of petty local government and police officials attempting to reveal the names of people who operate web sites or Twitter accounts that anonymously mock them. Remember how the mayor of Peoria, Illinois, sent out the police to arrest the guy who operated a parody Twitter account that made fun of him back in 2014? He refused to acknowledge he did anything wrong. He was just reelected mayor earlier in the week, incidentally.

It wouldn't come as a surprise if a judge struck down the CBP agents demand for information here given the misapplied federal regulations. It also wouldn't come as a surprise if CBP quietly withdraws or drops the order. It is nevertheless a very important reminder of how petty government officials are and exactly why it's important that Americans protect their right to keep their personal information and data private and protected from unwarranted government surveillance.

Read the Twitter suit here. Oh, and in typical "Streisand effect" fashion, the CBP agents' efforts clearly intended to intimidate or shut down this account has instead increased its profile and gotten it thousands of new followers.

UPDATE: BuzzFeed reports that the CBP has already withdrawn its demand for the Twitter account's user information, and Twitter has therefore dropped its lawsuit.