UPDATE: Following Reporters Committee's FOIA lawsuit, CBP releases records that shed light on attempt to "unmask" anonymous Twitter account

April 30, 2018

UPDATE (April 30, 2018): Following a lawsuit brought by the Reporters Committee, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has released records about its demand that Twitter turn over information about the individuals behind the anonymous Twitter account @ALT_uscis. Read the documents here. Following a court order, CBP is required to process 500 pages of records in response to this request every 30 days; the Reporters Committee will continue to post the records online as we receive them.

The following was originally published on January 24, 2018.

Reporters Committee Files Suit Against DHS, CBP, Demanding Compliance With FOIA

By Jose Ochoa

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a lawsuit against United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) over the agencies’ failure to comply with a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for records relating to a summons the agencies issued to Twitter in March.

This past April, CBP sought to unmask the authors of an anonymous Twitter account publishing viewpoints that are critical of President Trump’s immigration policies using the handle @ALT_uscis.  According to a lawsuit filed by Twitter, a CBP agent sent Twitter a summons by fax on March 14, 2017, ordering the company to provide certain records relating to the @ALT_uscis account, including user names, account login, phone numbers, and mailing and IP addresses.

Twitter filed suit against DHS and CBP, claiming that the summons infringed on its First Amendment rights. CBP withdrew the summons the next day, and Twitter voluntarily dismissed its claims without prejudice.

“That CBP would make a legal demand to Twitter to turn over information about an anonymous critic (or critics) of the agency's policies concerns us,” said Reporters Committee Litigation Director Katie Townsend. “This kind of government action threatens to chill speech on important issues. The public has a right to know why the government sought this kind of information, and for what purpose.”

On Nov. 16, 2017, a report from DHS’s Office of the Inspector General determined a “lack of clear guidance” on the proper use of summonses resulted in inconsistent and sometimes improper uses of such summonses by CBP.

Soon after CBP withdrew its summons, the Reporters Committee submitted a FOIA request to CBP and DHS seeking records that mention @ALT_uscis since Jan. 1, 2017, as well as any e-mail communications since Jan. 1, 2017 that mention @ALT_uscis and were sent to or from the two CBP special agents that issued the summons to Twitter.

The request also includes all records, including guidelines and directives, that discuss any laws CBP could use to compel the production of records to unmask the identity of people using databases, social media, and other software, as well as any records discussing laws that would allow someone who receives a summons to object to compliance with such summons.

In its Complaint, the Reporters Committee argues that DHS and CBP violated FOIA by failing to provide the records within the required deadline and wrongfully withholding records without listing exemptions, and seeks an order from the court requiring the agencies to produce records responsive to RCFP’s FOIA request.

The Reporters Committee is seeking these records to inform the public about the nature and purpose of the Department of Homeland Security’s demands to Twitter for information about one of its accounts, @ALT_uscis.

As of the day the complaint was filed, 282 calendar days have passed since the Reporters Committee’s FOIA request was submitted and 232 calendar days have passed since an appeal was filed. FOIA requires that agencies respond to a request within 20 days.