In a reminder of just how public the majority of our online communications are, Bitcointalk administrator “theymos,” aka Michael Marquadt announced that the government has subpoenaed the site for access to PMs relating to the much maligned mining company Butterfly Labs.
The order, according to the administrator, originally asked for every PM in relation to Butterfly Labs in the site's history. He managed to limit the number of PMs to those who worked for Butterfly Labs at some point. Over 600 users have reportedly had at least one PM released in response to the subpoena.
In an interview with CoinBuzz, Marquadt stated that he first received the subpoena on March 3 and it had originally asked for the PMs and all deleted posts relating to the mining company, and all reports to the forum administrators about Butterfly Labs. Marquadt managed to massively reduce the number of PMs by limiting them to PMs from employees directly involved in the case, but did not fight the order, or inform users who had their deleted posts and reports sent to the government. Marquadt states that doing so would take too much time, and users shouldn't have an expectation of privacy when it comes to something posted on a public forum.
Any messages that were sent to Butterfly Labs employees, including deleted ones, have likely been sent to the authorities. A list has been released (via CoinBuzz) of the accounts subpoenaed by the government. If you sent a PM to any of these accounts, your PMs may have been seized as well.
- BFL AM
Marquadt has already sent PMs to all affected users.
Marquadt stated his concern for the privacy implications, not just for his forum users, but also internet users as a whole.
“[U]sers of any website should be aware that it is basically impossible for any service to completely protect data that you give them access to. For example, if Google received a similar subpeona [sic] saying, “Give us all GMail emails talking about BFL,” it seems plausible to me that they might give up this info without any fight at all, and maybe not even tell the affected users about it.
“I think that I fought for user privacy much more vigorously than most sites would in this situation, and I still had to release a lot of private data. [...] Don’t trust third-parties with anything important.”
It also brings up the question of how much legally gray content could be found through a subpoena of the Bitcointalk PMs. This was related to a relatively small, isolated case (14-CV-2159-KHV-JPO aka Kyle Alexander et al vs Butterfly Labs LLC), but there have probably been hundreds or perhaps even thousands of crimes committed and spoken about on the Bitcointalk forum and its PM system.
While those users should know that their “private messages” are not guaranteed to stay private forever, the effect on the community if law enforcement ever decides to look into discussions of crime on the forum, it could be catastrophic. As Qntra points out, this isn't the first time Marquadt has complied with a government subpoena. He also gave up deleted posts in relation to the Ross Ublricht case.
Just a friendly PSA to encrypt all of your sensitive information and communications using a program like GnuPG.