Facebook warrant targeting student journalists in Puerto Rico prompts fears of political surveillance


ILLUSTRATION/Cathryn Virginia for The Intercept

As seven University of Puerto Rico students prepare to face trial in February for participating in a nonviolent protest more than two years ago, documents released to their defense attorneys reveal that Facebook granted the island’s Justice Department access to a trove of private information from student news publications. The department’s sweeping search warrant was part of a hunt for crimes committed by members of the youth anti-austerity movement, and it has raised fears among civil liberties advocates of a return to a period of Puerto Rico’s history when police routinely targeted citizens for surveillance on the basis of their political interests.

It was April 2017, and for weeks, University of Puerto Rico students had been holding a school-wide strike protesting austerity policies that were poised to defund public services across the island to satisfy the government’s creditors. When the university’s governing board gathered on April 27 to discuss $241 million in budget cuts, the students demanded to be let in. The board refused, locking the doors to the building where the meeting was being held. But the students stormed in anyway, pushing past security.

The action unfolded in real time on Facebook, as three student media outlets, Diálogo UPR, Pulso Estudiantil UPR, and Centro de Comunicación Estudiantil, livestreamed the protest. The students surrounded the board members and shut down the meeting, demanding that the board sign a commitment to rejecting the budget cuts. The action, one of many that took place on campus and in the streets, was over within half an hour. A glass door, some furniture, and a lamp were allegedly broken or damaged. No one was injured, and no one was arrested. But the secretary of Puerto Rico’s Justice Department, now-Gov. Wanda Vázquez, pledged to investigate the incident and arrest lawbreakers.

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