As our online activities become increasingly integrated into our daily lives, we leave ever expanding trails of information about ourselves in the hands of internet companies. The ACLU has fought and continues to fight the aggressive attempts of government law enforcement agencies to subpoena this private data. Now, corporations are getting in on the act. In a civil lawsuit related to its sprawling legal battle against a $19 billion Ecuadorian judgment and the plaintiffs’ lawyer who won it, it was recently revealed that Chevron issued subpoenas to Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft for information on 101 separate email accounts.
The oil giant’s subpoenas instruct the companies to turn over nine years’ worth of identifying and usage information related to the accounts at issue—including the account holders’ names, addresses, phone numbers, billing information, and IP logs (which can show geographic location). Although seemingly innocuous, this information has the potential to reveal all sorts of insights into a person’s private life. Knowing that an e-mail was sent from a church, an abortion clinic, or the headquarters of a gay rights organization can reveal something important about the person who sent it.
One of the account holders targeted by Chevron was Dr. Kevin Jon Heller, a senior lecturer at the Melbourne Law School and international law blogger for Opinio Juris. Although he is a prominent critic of Chevron’s activities in the Ecuador case, he has no substantive connection to the actual litigation. As he describes here, he first learned of the subpoena when Google’s legal department sent him an email notifying him of the demand, informing him that he would have to provide a formal legal objection within a few weeks 5 if he wanted to stop his information from being released.
The ACLU agreed to represent Dr. Heller in connection with the subpoena, and contacted Chevron’s lawyers to find out why they were seeking his private information. Despite several phone calls with Chevron’s attorneys, we never got an answer. Instead, Chevron withdrew its demand for Dr. Heller’s information entirely. And so his adventure ended as abruptly – and as mysteriously – as it began.
Chevron’s spokesman, Kent Robertson, now says that the company’s lawyers issued the subpoenas to figure out whether the designated accounts belong to key participants in the dispute. But that neither explains nor justifies Chevron’s demand for nine years’ worth of private account information on dozens of people, some of whom lack any apparent connection to the litigation. At best, Chevron’s lawyers went on a fishing expedition – at worst, they engaged in a calculated effort to intimidate the company’s adversaries. Either way, this case illustrates the need for clear rules to protect our digital privacy.