Wholesale seizure of activist e-communications service provider's data
On 6 November 2010, on request from the Italian police, the Norwegian police seized the data on the Norwegian servers of Autistici/Inventati (A/I) "a group of people who mantain and develop electronic communication services for individuals, associations, informal groups and movements and, among their particular aims, defend the freedom of expression and privacy" by confiscating and cloning the disks in its server. It hosts mailboxes and a number of activist discussion groups, providing encryption services.
A/I has found out that a public prosecutor in Avezzano sent international rogatory letters to the Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland, where it has servers, asking the local authorities to contact the internet service providers that host their servers to obtain data that they had not been provided by A/I's legal representatives. A/I stresses that it did not possess the information that the Italian police sought. The Norwegian postal police visited its ISP's webfarm and copied the disks, "whose contents are mostly encrypted".
The operation stems from a campaign against Casa Pound, a neo-fascist organisation that had set up an office in Avezzano (Abruzzo) between 9 December 2008 and 30 March 2009. The group's leader, Gianluca Jannone, and Ercole Marchionne, who founded its Avezzano branch, filed a lawsuit in which they alleged having been the victims of "slander" and "threats" which gave rise to the investigation. The grounds for these allegations were: a message painted on a wall, red paint on a doorbell and texts posted on two websites: the Abruzzo Indymedia website (abruzzo.indymedia.org) and orsa.noblogs.org, which stated that no public spaces should be available for avowedly neo-fascist groups.
From the Avezzano public prosecutor and police, the postal police in Milan was implicated in the case. The Investici Association, and hence A/I, was called to testify in August 2009 and declared that it did not hold any log files linked to the firstname.lastname@example.org mailbox that was under investigation on its servers, and that it did not have any personal details on record regarding its user. The rogatory letters followed, something unusual for a case involving "threats". A/I was able to re-activate its services from other servers in approximately two hours, and its entire infrastructure in around 24 hours.
The group's analysis of what happened focuses on two key aspects: firstly, the "relationship between neo-fascists and the institutions" in Italy, dating back to collusion and cover-ups during the "years of lead" in the 1970s and 1980s; secondly, on how the measure was so disproportionate that it may be interpreted as a case of "political intimidation" against A/I. After noting that a "protection system" prevented the truth about neo-fascist terrorism in the "years of lead" surfacing, in relation to more recent incidents, they speak of incongruence in sentencing against convicted fascists and anti-fascists.
Moreover, at a time when the police is complaining about cuts in its funding, A/I find it "inexplicable" for a private lawsuit concerning minor events to lead to rogatory letters being sent to foreign police forces to obtain data that does not exist and "would be irrelevant for any investigation". The only possible explanation, their statement claims, is that "Casa Pound has influence in some sectors of the Italian police", and later developments show that the "seizure means that they did not believe us" when A/I "clearly declared that we did not have the requested information".
The case is particularly serious because it involves a violation of the privacy of 2,000 people [who have A/I e-mail accounts] to ascertain that data about "one unknown individual does not exist". The investigation only concerns one mailbox and the operation in November 2010 sought to obtain logs dating back to late 2008, which A/I did not even have at the time. The rogatory letter from the public prosecutor's office is quoted in the A/I statement: "to obtain the file of log, and IP-access, for consultation, registration, change of password and updating relative to the mailbox ORSA @ CANAGLIE . NET (SHE-BEAR @ SCOUNDREL . NET) in the time span 2008-12-09 to 2009-12-09." The statement goes on to question the office's competence as a result of the translation of an e-mail account's user name and domain, adding that it is a small act of retaliation and political intimidation because A/I was deemed to have been "reticent" by refusing to provide information "we have never had and never will have in the future".
In conclusion, this retaliation has resulted in a "major privacy problem for 2,000 users", as a result of facts whose importance has been "overrated", an approach that could lead to any argument between neighbours becoming an international matter.
It is not the first time that a police operation results in A/I's services being disrupted and data on its servers concerning all its users being seized wholesale on spurious grounds. In June 2004, an investigation into the e-mail account of an anarchist group, "crocenera anarchica", in connection to allegations that their website contained subversive material linked to a letter-bomb campaign [there were seven arrests in May 2005, which a judge later deemed to be "unfounded"], led to the copying of the contents of the A/I server hosted by a commercial company that did not inform its client. A year later, on 21 June 2005, A/I found out about the operation, which may have resulted in the entire telecommunications traffic passing through their servers, and its contents, having been under surveillance. This was particularly serious because the purpose for which the association ran the servers and related services was to provide a channel for secure communications for the groups and collectives using them (see Statewatch News Online, July 2005).
Autistici/Inventati statements (available in several languages including English):
"Norwegian crackdown: fatti e note a margine", 22.11.10
"La polizia spara nel mucchio: colpirne cento per educarne uno?", 6.11.10.
Previous Statewatch coverage:
Italy: Police obtain wholesale access to encrypted e-mails and internet discussion groups used by activists, Statewatch News Online, July 2005
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