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Protesters at an entry point before the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump in Washington, DC, U.S., January 20, 2017.  © 2017 Reuters

United States activists are raising alarms about a new report that the Justice Department has obtained a search warrant for information about visitors to a website that coordinated protests at President Donald Trump’s inauguration. The warrant was issued as a part of an investigation into alleged criminal activities by certain people during the protests. DreamHost, the website host, has said the warrant would require it to disclose more than 1.3 million IP addresses that the government could use to identify people who visited the site.

DreamHost has correctly raised the alarm that this demand could discourage people from exercising their rights to free expression online. Human Rights Watch is concerned not only about this immediate impact on free speech, but also about a risk that if the authorities obtain this information, there may be insufficient protections to prevent them from storing and searching the data for the long-term. If the government takes an expansive view of its powers in that respect – as it has tried to do in at least one previous case – it may even be able to enter the data into databases that could later be used to create profiles of, or map relationships between, people for whom there is no suspicion of wrongdoing.

As DreamHost has pointed out in a legal filing, the warrant does not provide, “any assurance that the government will return or destroy the large portion of the information irrelevant to the government’s criminal case or cases.” Recent media reports have described troubling aspects of government databases – some furnished by the Palo Alto-based company Palantir – that may enable government entities to store and data mine large collections of law enforcement and other information. While we don’t yet know how the authorities intend to treat the data they gather from DreamHost, storing and mining data that is unrelated or unnecessary to an actual criminal investigation would raise serious potential human rights concerns, particularly when the collection appears to be centered on lawful expression, and organizing around political protest.

At a minimum, judges should consider these possible long-term effects when deciding whether to issue a warrant for large sets of user data. And companies that receive similar overreaching warrants should follow DreamHost’s example and challenge them on behalf of their users. The rights of everyone – from the politically active to the merely curious – are too important to sacrifice automatically to a blanket demand.

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