Facebook Warrant Targeting Student Journalists in Puerto Rico Prompts Fears of Political Surveillance

The Puerto Rico Justice Department accessed private information from student news publications as it built a case against protest leaders.

Illustration: Cathryn Virginia for The Intercept

As seven University of Puerto Rico students prepare to face trial in February for participating in a nonviolent protest more than two years ago, documents released to their defense attorneys reveal that Facebook granted the island’s Justice Department access to a trove of private information from student news publications. The department’s sweeping search warrant was part of a hunt for crimes committed by members of the youth anti-austerity movement, and it has raised fears among civil liberties advocates of a return to a period of Puerto Rico’s history when police routinely targeted citizens for surveillance on the basis of their political interests.

It was April 2017, and for weeks, University of Puerto Rico students had been holding a school-wide strike protesting austerity policies that were poised to defund public services across the island to satisfy the government’s creditors. When the university’s governing board gathered on April 27 to discuss $241 million in budget cuts, the students demanded to be let in. The board refused, locking the doors to the building where the meeting was being held. But the students stormed in anyway, pushing past security.

The action unfolded in real time on Facebook, as three student media outlets, Diálogo UPR, Pulso Estudiantil UPR, and Centro de Comunicación Estudiantil, livestreamed the protest. The students surrounded the board members and shut down the meeting, demanding that the board sign a commitment to rejecting the budget cuts. The action, one of many that took place on campus and in the streets, was over within half an hour. A glass door, some furniture, and a lamp were allegedly broken or damaged. No one was injured, and no one was arrested. But the secretary of Puerto Rico’s Justice Department, now-Gov. Wanda Vázquez, pledged to investigate the incident and arrest lawbreakers.

Two weeks later, students who had assumed leadership roles in the wider strike received citations ordering them to appear in court. When they showed up, they were handcuffed, paraded before media crews, and charged with a host of crimes related to the boardroom protest, the most severe of which — rioting and burglary — were later dropped. The remaining charges, including violating the right to assemble, aggravated restriction of freedom, and violence or intimidation against a public authority, each carry between six months and three years in prison. The seven students go to trial on February 7.

How exactly Vázquez’s Justice Department determined which students to charge out of the dozens who participated in the protest has remained a mystery to defense attorneys. The lawyers’ suspicion: that the case isn’t about crimes committed in the boardroom that day, but rather an attempt to penalize the political activity of some of the most active student organizers. The seven facing trial were members of the student strikers’ negotiating committee as well as political organizations critical of the government.

“What we are alleging is that they selected them based on their participation in the strike, that those who were leaders in the strike were the ones who were selected,” said Marisol Sáez Matos, one of the defense attorneys on the case.

The documents released to defense attorneys provide further evidence of a broad and invasive hunt for prosecutable crimes related to the protests. An agent from the cybercrimes unit of Puerto Rico’s Justice Department sought a search warrant for the records of virtually every Facebook interaction over a 72-hour period with the three publications that livestreamed the protest. The agent obtained private messages with the publications’ followers and detailed information about the student journalists who managed the pages.

“We consider this to be a violation of our rights as a free press,” said Marisol Nazario Bonilla, who was Pulso Estudiantil’s director when the existence of the warrant came to light. She told The Intercept that the warrant could have put confidential sources at risk. “If this happened to a student media outlet, it could happen to local, national newspapers, or news outlets in general.”

The court documents, some of which have been covered in the Puerto Rican press, also describe how an unnamed informant compiled a list of 25 suspects in the lead-up to the activists’ arrests. Regarding the identity of the informant, prosecutors have only said that the individual was not a participant in the protest, an eyewitness, or a government official. Puerto Rico’s Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment.

To many politicians, activists, and civil rights attorneys, the electronic targeting of politically engaged students appears to be an updated version of a surveillance system that was banned decades ago. “Surveillance is something that has been present in Puerto Rican activism through the ’50s and ’60s,” said Gabriel Díaz Rivera, one of the students facing trial. “A lot of people thought the practice ended in the ’80s, but we now know that it has continued, and that it has been made easier by social media platforms like Facebook.”

The Long Shadow of Carpeteo

For decades, Puerto Rico’s police department operated an intelligence unit dedicated to spying on dissidents. With the knowledge of the FBI, police officers created a file, known as a carpeta, for anyone who could be construed as a supporter of Puerto Rican independence or other environmental or labor causes. Officers recruited neighbors, friends, and relatives to collect information about those targeted, and planted rumors that led to divorce, job loss, and irreparable discord within communities and families.

The existence of the carpetas was revealed only after two University of Puerto Rico students were lured by an informant into the mountains in 1978 and executed by police. Law enforcement attempted to cover up the incident, which would later be referred to as Puerto Rico’s Watergate. In a radio interview in 1987, a former intelligence officer who had pleaded guilty to perjury and conspiracy for covering up the murders provided the first detailed account of the existence of a list of alleged subversives maintained by the police. The ensuing investigations revealed that law enforcement held active files on 75,000 people.

In 1988, a judge declared that creating surveillance dossiers on people simply because of their political beliefs was illegal, and in the years that followed, the government granted thousands of Puerto Ricans access to their files. It appeared that an oppressive period of the island’s history had come to a close.

Carpeteo, or the act of keeping files, has become shorthand for political surveillance.

As Mari Mari Narváez, founder of the anti-police brutality organization Kilometro 0, put it, the release of the carpetas “changed the mentality of this country forever.” Referencing the Facebook warrant, she added, “To me, this is carpeteo.” Carpeteo, or the act of keeping files, has become shorthand for political surveillance.

On the day of the protest against the university board, the cybercrimes agent, Luis LaSalle Vargas, logged onto Facebook and downloaded the livestreams posted by the three student pages. He would later testify that he took screenshots of the videos, capturing the images of anyone he judged to be a protester whose face was recognizable. To defense attorneys, the focus on protesters, rather than people engaged in criminal activity, was an indication that the investigation was about politics.

LaSalle Vargas sent a notice to Facebook asking the company to preserve the three pages in their current state, in case legally significant information was erased in the days to come. After an even larger protest over austerity measures broke out on May 1, where thousands of people poured into the streets and police cracked down violently, Lasalle Vargas sent Facebook another preservation request for the student pages. His renewed interest in the case after the May 1 protest again raised concerns for defense attorneys. The timing seemed to be another signal that the search was part of a broader effort to suppress an intensifying movement.

On May 5, LaSalle Vargas submitted a warrant request aimed at uncovering content exchanged both privately and publicly via the Facebook accounts. The agent asked for complete chat registries for the three days in question, as well as any searches the account managers conducted, digital images they posted, and content that had been deleted. The agent also asked for phone numbers and email addresses associated with the accounts, physical addresses of service, and records of bills and payments. And he demanded metadata including the dates and times the accounts were accessed, the GPS coordinates of posts, browser types, IP addresses, and cellphone IMSI numbers.

It’s unclear why information exchanged by student journalists would be relevant to the case. In an affidavit arguing for the warrant, the agent claimed that the information could reveal “evidence of the commission of crimes” potentially beyond what was captured on camera. In court, Lasalle Vargas said the search was simply “part of the investigation.” The copy of the search warrant shared with defense attorneys appears to be missing the page describing exactly which items the judge approved, but Sáez Matos believes the full request was granted.

“When it happened, we were not notified,” Pulso Estudiantil co-founder Roberto Nava Alsina told The Intercept. Many reporters use Facebook to communicate with potential sources, and the three outlets often used their accounts to promote stories that included criticisms of the government. Pulso Estudiantil’s writers and editors had no idea that the Justice Department had accessed 1,553 pages of their information, including private messages between the pages’ administrators and followers and the credit card numbers of several students, among them Nava Alsina, who was not at the board protest and was not among those charged. None of the seven students facing trial were connected to Pulso Estudiantil, Nava Alsina added.

“This is the first time that I’ve seen them do an investigation of digital media where they decide who to accuse based on what they find.”

Under federal law, when a government entity applies for a warrant, it can ask the court to order service providers not to notify users for 90 days. “You won’t be told it in real time because of the claim from law enforcement that it will interfere with the ongoing investigation,” said Albert Fox Cahn, founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. “Of course, if someone has a search warrant for your apartment, then it’s much easier to know that your couch has been overturned versus the fact that someone has come in and taken your electronic information.”

Neither Facebook nor the government ever alerted the individuals whose information had been turned over. Instead, students only learned about what happened after Denis Márquez Lebrón, an Independence Party member of Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives, contacted Pulso Estudiantil to let them know that he was requesting a congressional investigation into whether the search violated the island’s constitution. Nava Alsina, who has since left Puerto Rico for graduate school in Washington, D.C., first learned that the government had accessed his private information when Pulso Estudiantil reported it. “I was surprised,” he said. By that point, one of the publications, Diálogo UPR, the university’s official student newspaper, had shut down because of budget cuts.

Andrés González Berdecía, a legal aide for Lebrón, shared the documents with the student publications but declined to share them with The Intercept, citing privacy concerns. He described them in detail and noted that the judge appeared to have signed off on everything investigators had requested.

“You can basically say that it was every possible interaction from that page, whether by the user or other users, for three full days,” González Berdecía said. “That was way too broad.”

“The information requested in no way could legitimately be thought to be related to the commission of a crime for a specific date,” he added. “It was obvious that the information requested by the government for three days, of specifically three student accounts in a very important moment, right before the May 1 International Workers’ Day in Puerto Rico, had the intention of gathering a lot of information about student organizations that the government thought were against the government.”

Sáez Matos, the defense attorney, called the warrant a “fishing expedition” and said there has been no indication so far that the search unearthed information of value to the case. “This is the first time that I’ve seen them do an investigation of digital media where they decide who to accuse based on what they find,” she said. “Why investigate people that weren’t there?”

Too Much Information

The Puerto Rico warrant is the latest in a series of sweeping requests for social media data by law enforcement across the U.S., according to Cahn.

“It’s incredibly problematic when we see a warrant as broad as this, used to gather the information on dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of individuals at a time,” Cahn told The Intercept. “The most high-profile example that really put a lot of us on notice about the practice was the Disrupt J20 protest in Washington, D.C.” Following protests and mass arrests during the inauguration of Donald Trump, the government obtained invasive warrants for the “distruptJ20” Facebook page and the private accounts of two activists. “The enforcement of these warrants would reach deeply into individuals’ private lives and protected associational and political activity,” the American Civil Liberties Union, which achieved some success in reining in the searches’ scope, said at the time.

Cahn noted that these mass requests are constitutionally shaky in that they fail to meet the threshold for “particularity” required under the Fourth Amendment, meaning they yield “too much information, on too many people, and on too tenuous a basis” to qualify as reasonable searches. But Cahn also pointed to the fact that no warrant is required for an undercover officer or a confidential informant to simply request access to a private group and then scrape its contents. Although Puerto Rican prosecutors indicated that an informant assembled a list of 25 students from which the seven defendants were selected, they declined to say more about the informant’s activities or identity.

“Before, police needed a person or investigator following you around, but now we basically do that for ourselves.”

The Puerto Rico case, Cahn said, “is part of a continuum of policing practices that we are seeing.”

The use of an informant only deepened the perception of a return to the past. Unlike the old days, though, when police spied on people with little oversight, this time the surveillance was approved by a judge. Indeed, if this was carpeteo, it was a modernized version. “In this age, we have made our own carpetas, our own political files, and Facebook has made it much easier for the police to just access those types of intimate files and more of our day-to-day life,” said Rivera, the student facing trial in February. “Before, police needed a person or investigator following you around, but now we basically do that for ourselves, and with a formal request, Facebook can just hand police all this information.”

“What a lot of people probably didn’t realize was that it would be so easy for police to use that information to prosecute students, like in our case, that weren’t arrested formally in the act of a protest,” he added.

Of course, if the prosecution of the students and the surveillance that surrounded the 2017 protests were intended to intimidate people and discourage dissent, that has largely failed. “What’s interesting is that that hasn’t stopped people. The biggest protest that has happened in Puerto Rican history happened this summer,” Rivera told The Intercept. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in July and successfully demanded the resignation of the corrupt governor Ricardo Rosselló. “And if you look around the world, no matter how much these neoliberal governments crack down on protest and crack down on activism, what we are seeing, in the whole world, is that activism gets stronger. The way a lot of these governments have acted toward dissent has basically been like gasoline for people.”

Correction: January 19, 2020, 9:30 p.m. ET
A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Puerto Rico’s governor, Wanda Vázquez. The article has also been updated to clarify that none of the students facing trial were connected to Pulso Estudiantil, according to co-founder Roberto Nava Alsina.

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