6.805 - Boiling Planet Action - Amazon Subpoena Exercise

Factual Background

In the the Spring of 2008, the Federal Bureau of Investigation Domestic Terrorism Taskforce began investigating a shadowy environmental direct action group called Boiling Planet Action (BPA) in the course of trying to solve a series of attacks against carbon-emitting enterprises including gas stations, cattle feed lots and refineries. BPA has no headquarters, no identified leadership, and no legal identity whatsoever, and no known members. However, after each of these attacks videos mysteriously appear on Bit Torrent with muffled voices coming from a tall pine tree. The videos contain credible claims of responsibility for reach attack, declare that BPA's mission is to force a reduction of carbon emissions by 50% by the end of 2008. Ominously, the last video, aired the day after an attack on the air conditioning units of Google's server farm in Quincy, Washington, declares that Boiling Planet Action will mount an attack on the Democratic National Convention to be held in Denver, CO on 25-28 August 2008.

Despite vigorous investigation, the Terrorism Task Force has made very little progress. In the first break in the case, the FBI learned on 27 July 2008 from a reliable informant that BPA has 2500 active members. The FBI did learn that membership is highly selective and not likely to grow, in part because of the high degree of technical expertise required to participate in the group's communications channels. Members communicate using coded messages embedded in Amazon customer reviews. Messages are passed through an elaborate text encryption algorithm said to be developed specially for Boiling Planet by an MIT undergraduate as a final project in 6.805. The faculty of that course, found traveling out of the United States, be being held for questioning in Albania at a CIA rendition facility. Despite technical assistance from the NSA, the FBI has not been able to crack the cryptographic technique employed. However, they have learned that each each message sent is decoded from thousands of individual reviews placed pseudonymously by Action members around the world.

Legal Background

On 28 July 2008 the US Attorney in Denver, CO, convened a Federal Grand Jury to assistant with investigation and prosecution of BPA members. AUSA Smith served a Grand Jury subpoena on Amazon.com, requesting the real name and billing address of all Amazon customers who wrote reviews since January 2008. On 30 July, Amazon moved in the United States District Court in Denver to quash the subpoena on the grounds that it would impair the First Amendment rights on their customers. As an alternative a team from the Amazon CTO's office proposed to the court two alternative means of satisfying the FBI's investigative needs that would respect the First Amendment privacy rights of Amazon customers. All parties will want to keep in mind the recently decided, though controversial case, In re Grand Jury Subpoena to Amazon.com dated August 7, 2006.



6 December 2007
2:05 - 2:15 Introduction
  • Subpoena Duces Tecum - defn?
  • Broad truth-finding interest in justice system outweighs almost all other considerations
  • General subpoena standard
    • information relevant to an ongoing investigation
    • good faith (by officer of the court and/or Grand Jury)
  • Amazon subpoena - Magistrate finds 1A interest
  • The hypothetical presents a new challenge to Amazon
  • Parties
    • 6 groups
    • 4 individuals
  • 2 other cases of interest
  • schedule
2:15 - 2:45 Group preparation
2:20 - 2:30 Amazon argument - Ms. Grey
2:30 - 2:40 AUSA reply - AUSA Smith, AUSA Jones (5 min each)
2:40 - 2:50 ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom (5 min each)
2:50 - 3:00 Amazon's CTO alternative - 2 teams (5 min each)
3:00 - 3:30 recess -- 6.898 presentations
3:30 - 3:40 break
3:40 - 3:50 AUSA response to CTO alternative (5 min each)
3:50 - 4:00 Amazon rebuttal - alt counsel
4:00 - 4:20 Judge's deliberate and announce opinion
4:20 - 4:40 Discussion

Daniel Weitzner <djweitzner@csail.mit.edu>
5 December