As Gawker's Adrian Chen reported over the weekend, a freelance security consultant has admitted to forwarding internal Occupy Wall Street emails to both the NYPD and FBI in an apparent attempt to undermine the group's efforts.
Some Occupy Wall Street members are concerned their civil liberties may have been violated. If the emails were solicited by the FBI or NYPD, those concerns could translate into legal issues. But if, as Thomas Ryan, the security consultant, claimed to Gawker, he sent the emails essentially out of the blue, the FBI and NYPD may very well be in the legal clear over the forwarded emails because of the judicial doctrine of "false friends."
"You want unfettered dissent, so I don't like it either way," said Michael Ratner, the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and a long-time civil liberties litigator in New York City.
Still, he added, "it doesn't raise the same issues necessarily as having someone that's a government informant in the park."
"Unfortunately, you take risks with 'false friends,'" Ratner said. Courts have ruled that police agencies can receive information from recorded conversations without a warrant as long as one party -- in this case Thomas Ryan, who forwarded the emails -- has consented to recording them.
The emails were hosted on a semi-public listerv on Google Groups. Ryan would likely have had little difficulty gaining access to them. At least one Occupy Wall Street organizer whose email was forwarded was angry.
"This surveillance shows that mercenary snitches, the FBI and the NYPD are the enemies of our civil liberties, not the protectors," said Conor Tomás Reed, an adjunct at the City University of New York whose email was forwarded.
He added, "OWS participants didn't blink an eye when we heard of this leak because our political ideas and actions are out in the open, not shrouded in secrecy."
"As far as I'm concerned, it's all good," said Gail Zawacki, who hoped her emails would wake people up to environmental issues.
"Anyway," Zawacki added, "it's not clear that the FBI actually read them, is it, just because they were forwarded? You would think they would have better things to do."
The FBI would not comment on the forwards directly. The bureau noted that as a general rule it does not comment on whether someone is or is not a source.
But Adrienne Senatore, a bureau spokeswoman, noted that "we receive emails every day ... it's not uncommon that someone would send someone in the FBI an email about anything."