Sheriff, prosecutor at war with paper make mockery of online privacy

Keep in mind that this entire brouhaha appears to be over the publication online of a sheriff's home address, but as you'll see really has very little to do with that event.

Tucked in the middle of the tale you'll find Arizona law enforcement officials demanding from a newspaper every conceivable user record of every one of the visitors to its Web site since 2004: IP addresses, originating sites, pages viewed, information obtained from cookies - heck, even what type of browser and operating system they used.

On every single visitor.

The story is almost 5,000 words so I'm going to give you the Reader's Digest version with special attention to the Internet angle.

Three years ago a columnist for the Phoenix New Times wrote a piece about the local sheriff that way down near the bottom included the lawman's home address. Arizona apparently has a statute making it a crime to publish the home address of a law enforcement officer online (there looks to be no comparable prohibition against publishing such address in print, or, as the story notes, on a billboard.)

The sheriff's address was already publicly available on a handful of government Web sites - and finding anyone's address these days is child's play - so at worst we have here a technical violation of a meaningless law.

(Update: Justice lives, case dropped, special prosecutor sacked. … Read excerpts from county attorney’s press conference here.)

But the sheriff and the newspaper have been at odds for more than a decade, most vividly over the publication asking questions about how a public servant earning $78,000 could afford more than a million dollars worth of real estate buys, including one $790,000 transaction that paid in cash.

Three years later there's a secret grand jury investigating the home address matter and yesterday the paper's editor and publisher were hauled off to jail by the sheriff's men for running a story that revealed that investigation's secret goings-on. Now, revealing information about a secret grand jury is serious stuff - even though it happens with regularity - and I started reading the story expecting to find a pretty good rationale for the paper's decision.

Oh, they had no choice, all right - which doesn't mean they won't pay a price.

Back to the special prosecutor's demand for the paper's Web site records. From the story:

The subpoena demands: "Any and all documents containing a compilation of aggregate information about the Phoenix New Times Web site created or prepared from January 1, 2004 to the present, including but not limited to:

A) which pages visitors access or visit on the Phoenix New Times website;

B) the total number of visitors to the Phoenix New Times website;

C) information obtained from 'cookies,' including, but not limited to, authentication, tracking, and maintaining specific information about users (site preferences, contents of electronic shopping carts, etc.);

D) the Internet Protocol address of anyone that accesses the Phoenix New Times website from January 1, 2004 to the present;

E) the domain name of anyone that has accessed the Phoenix New Times website from January 1, 2004 to the present;

F) the website a user visited prior to coming to the Phoenix New Times website;

G) the date and time of a visit by a user to the Phoenix New Times website;

H) the type of browser used by each visitor (Internet Explorer, Mozilla, Netscape Navigator, Firefox, etc.) to the Phoenix New Times website; and,

I) the type of operating system used by each visitor to the Phoenix New Times website."

What possible need might an investigator have to such information?

None, of course, but as the story makes clear, this isn't about the home address or the law.

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