Tech + Health

03.11.14

Pinterest’s Most Wanted: The Cops Now Want Pinners’ Data, Too

The virtual bulletin board is now being pinged by the cops to give up users’ data. But unlike other tech firms, Pinterest is actually telling its users when law enforcement comes calling.

Pinterest shared something naughty this week—but chances are you won’t be repinning.

In a message posted on their own blog, the virtual bulletin board disclosed its first ever “transparency report,” which details the 12 government requests for 13 different users’ data that the site has received in the past six months.

Unlike other sites, which are asked for hundreds of thousands of user data, Pinterest’s policy is to inform every user for whom the government has requested data. Out of the 13 users’ data Pinterest released, it was able to inform 10 that the action was occurring. (They were prevented by law from advising the remaining three, for fear of jeopardizing a criminal investigation.) “We want people understand that if someone asks for their information, we’re going to let them know. Unless we’re prevented by law,” Barry Schnitt, Head of Communications and Public Policy at Pinterest tells The Daily Beast.

“We think it’s important you know about these requests,” writes Adam Barton, the pinning paradises’ self-described “legal guy” writes. Sprinkled with pie graphs, the Pinterest report offers basic details about how the requests were made (warrants and subpoenas), how many were from local government (all but one), and the amount of times Pinterest denied the requests (once). Out of the 12 requests, 11 originated from state or local meeting—four from California, two from Florida, two from Utah, and one from New York, Oregon, and Wisconsin.

Although once under the microscope of copyright law (an issue which Pinterest has since resolved, the report marks the website’s first public affair with law enforcement. “At some point no one was asking, no one had heard of Pinterest,” Barry Schnitt, Head of Communications and Public Policy at Pinterest tells The Daily Beast. “But gradually they did, and we wanted to make that process transparent as we could—and let law enforcement know what we have and what we don’t have.” Schnitt says the decision to begin tracking in July 2013 wasn’t a calculated choice (“we had to start somewhere”) and that the site had only received a handful of requests before then.

At first glance, the words Pinterest and crime seem at odds. With roughly 71 million users and an estimated 62 million unique visits per day, the site is generally seen as a safe haven of creative sharing. From award-winning photography to crocheted Matthew McCounagheys, life-sized gummy worms to baby Swiffers the weird and wonderful mind of Pinterest knows no bounds.

“We want people understand that if someone asks for their information, we’re going to let them know.”

But eclipsed by the pleasure-seeking Pinteratti, is a lesser known—and utilized—aspect of Pinterest that is highlighted by the recent subpoenas: crime fighting. A simple search on the site itself brings up a variety of pages created by law enforcement -- not to compare the trendiest uniforms, but to help in their mission of justice. In Redwood City, California, police created a “Recovered Property” page on which they post lost items in search of their once-beloved owner. While jewelry and bikes dominate the page, other sentimental (and even beautiful) items like a tattered black and white picture of a young couple have thier place too.

Other more serious pages aim to track down the criminals themselves. "Wanted by Police" is an album created by a local newspaper that serves three counties in Pennslyvania. “Debora Capo, 52, is wanted by Pottstown police for DUI charges,” reads the description below a mug shot of a white scrunchie-wearing woman. “Talat Elbahwati, 42, is wanted by Pottstown Police for theft by deception,” another reads, underneath the picture of a smiling man in a leather jacket.

Caroline Sweeney, the police reporter for the Pottstown Mercury, updates the page at least once a week. “It’s been incredibly effective. We have people commenting on the pictures constantly,” Sweeney tells The Daily Beast. “They’ll say ‘Oh, I think I saw that person at the supermarket,’ or ‘I heard that person’s in Florida.’” While initially created to foster community engagement, Pottstown’s Most Wanted page is now the police department’s secret weapon.

Pinterest’s Schnitt, while slightly amused at the idea of his site as a bulletin board for clues, isn’t against it. “It’s a platform. That’s the thing about creating a platform, you never know what people are going to use it for,” he says. “Obviously it wasn’t intended to do that, but it helps people with stolen properties or put bad guys away we’re all for it.”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Most Wanted page was created by Pottstown law enforcement themselves. It was created by a local newspaper.