Cyberspace Invaders

County law enforcement's seeking more and more Web site information to mount investigations against private citizens

Maricopa County law enforcement officials are increasingly turning to the Internet to target private individuals they consider a "threat." Who qualifies as a threat in their minds? Anyone who disagrees with them, from political opponents to average newspaper readers.

In October, the Arizona Republic, CNN, the New York Times, and practically every other large news organization in the country reported that a special prosecutor appointed by Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas had filed a grand jury subpoena against New Times in August, demanding the newspaper hand over the Internet Protocol (IP) address of every computer whose user visited since January 1, 2004 (each home computer, and many business computers, have separate IP addresses that act like fingerprints on each site they visit).

The subpoena also demanded to know, for every page visitor who accessed the Web site, "information obtained from 'cookies,' including, but not limited to, authentication, tracking, and maintaining specific information about users (site preferences, contents of electronic shopping carts, etc.)"; the type of browser and operating system the visitor was using; and even the Web site the visitor had been to before viewing

Danny Hellman

What that means is Thomas wanted to know if you read our paper online. He wanted to know what stories you read, what restaurant listings you looked up, which concert listings and blog posts you read on our site. He wanted to know what other Web sites you visited before you came to our site, and whether you purchased anything on those sites. And he wanted to know what you purchased.

To translate this from the digital realm to its brick-and-mortar equivalent, put it this way: If you picked this paper up from one of our boxes on the street, Andrew Thomas wanted to know your address. He wanted to know if you are reading this article, and any other articles in this paper. If you picked up this paper at a supermarket, the county attorney wanted to know the contents of your shopping cart — Doritos, Cheez Whiz, loaf of bread — everything. And when you put down this paper and went on to read something else — Newsweek, Playboy, the Bible — he wanted to know that, too.

The subpoena came in response to a 2004 New Times story detailing Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's hidden commercial real estate holdings. The sheriff invested $790,000 in cash into various real estate properties but hid the details by utilizing an arcane statute that allows law enforcement to mask their home address for security reasons. Arpaio had additional commercial investments of which there were no financial details.

The original story ran down the list of Arpaio's properties and asked two questions: How does a public servant making $78,000 plus a DEA pension come by that sort of cash? Why is the sheriff hiding commercial transactions?

While printing Arpaio's address in the course of this investigation did not present a problem, putting the story on our Web site with his home address was a low-level felony.

Three years after the infraction, county authorities used the violation as the leverage to issue grand jury subpoenas against the paper, its writers, and its readers.

Arpaio has a history of vindictiveness, detailed in Sarah Fenske's New Times cover story "Enemies List" (November 29), which kicked off our "Target Practice" series that continues in this issue. Deputies say the sheriff even used to carry around a list of his "enemies" — those who had supported his political rivals. Now, instead of a slip of paper, Arpaio, Thomas, and their office look to the Internet to do their legwork by searching for the IP addresses of anyone who may have read anything negative about them.

What those law enforcement officials would have done with the names and IP addresses of the thousands of American citizens who had read New Times articles critical of Arpaio is anyone's guess.

New Times responded by publishing the subpoena on October 18 ("Breathtaking Abuse of the Constitution"). Doing so put the paper at legal risk. The paper's owners, Jim Larkin and Michael Lacey, who authored the subpoena story, were arrested shortly after the paper hit the streets. Internet users from around the world left comments on, offering up their IP addresses in a show of solidarity against the blatant abuse of power.

After stories in national media detailed the egregious reach of the subpoena, Thomas held a press conference, wrapped himself in the very same Constitution he was trampling on the day before, and announced that the county was dropping the case against the paper.

But New Times' investigation reveals that the county attorney and the sheriff are increasingly targeting computers and online activity in their investigations. As troubling as this emerging threat to the Constitution is, it is equally disturbing that the authorities do not understand the technical nature of the data they seek.

New Times has uncovered numerous instances of law enforcement officials using digital means to attempt to identify political opponents, adversaries, and people who might not agree with them.

In November 2006, sheriff's deputies raided the home of Christy Fritz and confiscated four of her computers. Fritz had designed a mailer for a Democratic candidate running against Republican Representative Jim Weiers. In a photo on the mailer, a Maricopa County Sheriff's Office logo was visible. The deputies' search warrants stated that the emblem may have been stolen — and used that suspicion to take the computers, which contained information about numerous political rivals of Arpaio's.

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