In the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, Andrew Torba made a point to tell the public he was cooperating with investigators once it was discovered the shooter had a Gab profile. This has been met with mixed reactions by users, ranging from the trusting to the completely unreasonable.
Today the Gab account, @Gab posted a Wall Street Journal article about the UK Parliament publishing some internal emails from Facebook, stating that “Gab.com uses American data privacy law to protect you and your privacy so you can speak freely. We will never do this:”
In what is in hindsight a mistake on my part, I made a comment about that cooperation. The mistake being, Gab was referencing Facebook’s discussion of selling access to user data to private companies. From the headline I thought he was talking about emails winding up in the hands of government officials, and since those emails were found during a civil discovery procedure, Gab presumably would have to defy a court order to avoid this happening. In hindsight I can see that he was talking about the sale of data as something Gab would not do, but I think that has more to do with the Gab service agreement than it does with US privacy law.
In my ignorance at the time, I commented “Then what’s with these guys reporting that the FBI showed up with all their Gab private messages in hand?” referencing unconfirmed rumors from Gab users of such things happening. This question, regardless of the erroneous placement, deserves answering, along with some others.
To this, one user replied “Torba’s so in bed with the FBI his asshole is bleeding.”
I have cooperated with law enforcement myself, as recently as today, actually. So I came up with a lengthy response, discovering Gab’s 3,000 character limit for Pro users for the first time. So I decided to finish my inquiry here.
The TLDR Version is this: It should be expected that Gab would cooperate with authorities, but we are getting mixed signals about the site’s simultaneous dedication to privacy, and cooperation with government forces. Clarification would go a long way in building trust for the platform.
Full version below;
In all fairness, @a and @epik should be expected to cooperate with the FBI. I said on the show today, that I contacted the FBI, this very afternoon, after receiving a voicemail which suggested that a mentally unstable listener might be thinking about doing something stupid. People in positions of responsibility have to cooperate with the government. The problem arrives when the terms aren’t clear, or their words differ from their deeds.
Nobody should be giving Gab any information that they wouldn’t want on the front page of the New York Times, (at least) until they clarify the disconnect between their dedication to privacy and anonymity on the one hand, and their enthusiasm for government cooperation on the other. Those two concepts exist in eternal hostility to one another, just as much as free speech and political correctness. Gab ought to clarify the circumstances under which either one prevails, because both cannot prevail simultaneously.
At a minimum, you should expect that Gab will comply with subpoenas, search warrants, civil discovery procedures, and other court orders. They have no choice in this, and the platform does not claim to use end to end encryption, like ProtonMail does, which would make compliance impossible. You should also expect that when they become aware of criminal activity taking place on their platform, that they proactively report it to authorities.
But there exist some serious questions which deserve answering.
Does Gab give the government access to information without a court order, or without clear and convincing evidence of a crime taking place? Much has been made of Torba’s full and complete cooperation with the Justice Department in the wake of the synagogue shooting. We would expect this to involve giving them everything they knew about Bowers.
Did they ask the FBI for a subpoena or warrant before handing over that data? I used to work the abuse department for a datacenter, and the FBI would contact us from time to time about child porn or something equally horrible. I enthusiastically cooperated with them, and if necessary I would, upon a mere request, see to it that data was preserved. But for them to get that data in their own hands, we would require a subpoena or other court order. Not because we didn’t want to cooperate, but because we didn’t want to help the government break the law.
Can the government gain access to other user data by merely accusing that user of a crime, without a court order? Bowers was all over the news and to the best of my knowledge hasn’t denied the shooting. So that’s one thing. Can the FBI call Torba on the cell phone and say “I think this guy has been smoking pot by the shed. Tell me what he’s been messaging his girlfriend about” and get such a request fulfilled?
When the FBI inevitably became interested in other users as a result of the shooting, what limits were there to the information provided? We would expect that any user who told Bowers “I’ll do it if you do it” on Gab could soon expect a visit from investigators. Does Bowers commenting on a popular user’s thread entitle the FBI to the entire message history of the popular user?
Is anything ever truly deleted on Gab? If it is true that users are having lengthy DM histories appear in the hands of the FBI, that means we were deceived by the system when it said “All messages are deleted in 7 days”. Is Gab keeping records of conversations which its users themselves do not have access to? Is Gab deleting posts when we delete them? This is a perjury trap waiting to happen if Gab is keeping records we ourselves cannot see. You forget about a conversation which you yourself cannot reference, you tell the FBI the conversation never happened, and you end up like Jerome Corsi.
These are worthwhile concerns, but even when they are answered, you are ultimately responsible for your own security, and the consequences of security failures. As long as you think of Gab as a place to be heard, as opposed to a place to keep secrets, none of this should be of great import to you. You should not keep your secrets here, because even if Gab professed an absolutely defiant stance against government surveillance, sites get hacked, spies infiltrate, and mistakes are made. Gab cannot give anyone any information which you do not give Gab, so be vigilant about what you give them, or any other website targeted by the most powerful forces on Earth for destruction.