Following the FISA Court, the (Advanced) Internet Way

published by Eric Mill on

A couple weeks ago, I created @FISACourt, a Twitter account that automatically posts whenever the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court website is updated. I created it in about 5 minutes, using and IFTTT, and blogged about how it works.

After I did that and @FISACourt got a few followers, I realized this would not be good enough. In my experience, IFTTT checks RSS feeds once an hour, and ChangeDetection's FAQ says they check pages just once a day. That's potentially a 25 hour delay — not so good for breaking news.

So I wrote some code to check the FISA Court myself, and set it to run every 5 minutes, using my web server (the same machine that serves this blog). You can find the code at, along with instructions for setting it up yourself.

This new setup does more than check for changes and update a Twitter account — it also sends me an email and a text message so that I know an update just went out. This way, I can quickly figure out what changed and promptly add some human explanation of what the FISA Court just did, like so:

It's written in Ruby, and optionally uses Twilio for text messages (which cost me all of one penny apiece). For emails, you need to use an SMTP server (you can use your Gmail account, but Google doesn't like to talk about it), and to connect it to Twitter, go to their developer portal and create an application for the account you want to post from.

The initial version was only 82 lines, and would just download the Court's site and compare files on disk to see if they were different. It worked, and it was fast, but it was also clumsy: if you (as a follower of @FISACourt) wanted to know what changed, you had to either wait for me to hop on and explain, or dig around the site yourself until you find the new things. I kept records of the changes, but only as files on my server, and the first time the FISA Court updated, I mistakenly thought it was a trivial change because I misread the changes. Amateur!

So today, I published and documented my code, and announced my intent to automatically show diffs using GitHub. Ben Balter immediately jumped on it and added that GitHub integration in an hour. I shored it up a little further, and from now on each automatic tweet from @FISACourt will also include a link to a nicely rendered view of the changes (like the example above).

The whole thing is still very simple, just over 100 lines, and easy to set up. It's a little bit of glue that pulls together powerful services that cost little to no money, and needs no one's permission. Internet.