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November 27, 2007

Federal Judge Limits Governemnt Access to Amazon Customer Data in Investigation

A federal magistrate judge unsealed records in a federal tax evasion case where the government subpoenaed Amazon for the names and other information about Amazon customers who bought used books from the target of a grand jury investigation.  The government planned to use that information to interview individuals in build a case against Robert B. D'Angelo.   The government did not characterize Amazon customers as involved with any criminal activity associated with the probe.  The order was issued over a year ago in August, 2006.

The Judge Stephen Crocker did not quash the government subpoena though he expressed concerns about how citizens would perceive the government investigating their reading habits even if that information was incidental to the crime.  Quoting the Court:

But it is an unsettling and un-American scenario to envision federal agents nosing through the reading lists of law-abiding citizens while hunting for evidence against somebody else. In this era of public apprehension about the scope of the USAPATRIOT Act, the FBI’s (now-retired) “Carnivore” Internet search program, and more recent highly-publicized admissions about political litmus tests at the Department of Justice, rational book buyers would have a non-speculative basis to fear that federal prosecutors and law enforcement agents have a secondary political agenda that could come into play when an opportunity presented itself.  Undoubtedly a measurable percentage of people who draw such conclusions would abandon online book purchases in order to avoid the possibility of ending up on some sort of perceived “enemies list.”

The passage comes with a footnote:

I am not finding that such fears are well-founded, but neither can I find them completely speculative or irrational. Quite apart from any book buyer’s personal fear of federal apparatchiks or black helicopters is the more commonly shared notion that living in the land of the free means that it’s none of the government’s business what books people are reading.

Rather the judge placed conditions on how the government got their information.  Amazon would contact customers with appropriate documentation from the government and the Court asking for volunteers.  The government later withdrew the subpoena.

The case is In Re Grand Jury Subpoena To Sealed Order Amazon.com Dated August 7, 2006.  The opinion is here.

November 27, 2007 | Permalink

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