U.S. attempted to leverage Twitter in war on WikiLeaks

Twitter has been caught in the crossfire as the U.S. government moves forward with their investigation into WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. However, Twitter fought back, and as a result the world can follow along as the U.S. Department of Justice goes fishing.

On December 14, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) asked the federal court in the Eastern District of Virginia to issue an order under seal to Twitter. In the order, the DOJ said that they were looking for information on accounts linked to WikiLeaks, as it was “relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation”. The court agreed.

As such, they ordered Twitter to deliver information on the main WikiLeaks account, and the personal accounts maintained by Birgitta Jonsdottir; a member of the Icelandic parliament, Rob Gonggrijp; a past WikiLeaks supporter, and Jacob Appelbaum, who also worked with WikiLeaks. Moreover, included in the list were Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, even though they do not have publically known accounts.

The timeline listed by the court starts on November 1, 2009, and seeks everything recorded to the present date. Included in the scope of information requested are names, mailing addresses, IP addresses, email account data, and if present, any billing information, including banking or credit card records.

Given that the order was under seal, Twitter had three days to comply and could not tell the referenced users about the legal request. They could have gone about their business, delivered the information, and told no one. Instead, they fought the order and were able to unseal it, allowing them to warn those listed by the court to seek legal advice.

“We are writing to inform you that Twitter has received legal process requesting information regarding your Twitter account,” Twitter’s notice, which was posted by Gonggrijp, explained.

“Please be advised that Twitter will respond to this request in 10 days from the date of this notice unless we receive notice from you that a motion to quash the legal process has been filed or that this matter has been otherwise resolved. This notice is not legal advice. You may wish to consult legal counsel about this matter.”

Responding to the information gathering by the DOJ, Birgitta Jonsdottir tweeted, “The US government is trying to criminalize whistleblowing and publication of whistleblowing material, puts journalists at risk in the future.”

[The Associated Press has more coverage from Iceland in a story here.]

Adding to that, Aden Fine, the senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project issued a statement that said the court order raises serious constitutional concerns.

“These government requests for detailed information about individuals' Internet communications raise serious First Amendment concerns and will have a chilling effect on people's willingness to engage in lawful communications over the Internet,” Fine said.

“There are serious doubts as to whether the government's interest in obtaining all of this private and constitutionally protected information is sufficiently compelling to outweigh the constitutional interests at stake.”

In addition, Fine said Twitter should be commended for their move to unseal the court’s order, but the ACLU is “…troubled that the order was filed under seal in the first place.”

Even Anonymous issued a statement on the court's order.

"The salient point is that Twitter was not used as a platform to distribute confidential information, nor was it used to broadcast hateful messages...For the DOJ to seek access to the personal details, network addresses, and session information of those users is not just unconstitutional, but quite frankly terrifying."

In a blog post, Gonggrijp wrote that his involvement in a criminal investigation, “…especially one which is likely to have huge political pressure behind it, is a very serious matter”. To that end, he is talking with lawyers in an attempt to get a fix on things.

Gonggrijp, as well as Glen Greenwald over at Salon, question if organizations such as Google, Ebay (Skype), and Facebook received similar sealed orders. That question remains unanswered, as they have refrained from issuing comments on the incident.

Greenwald was one of the first to break the story and release the court documents. You can read his coverage here. Additional commentary, provided by Christopher Soghoian, is also worth a read.

“It's worth recalling - and I hope journalists writing about this story remind themselves - that all of this extraordinary probing and “criminal” investigating is stemming from WikiLeaks' doing nothing more than publishing classified information showing what the U.S. Government is doing: something investigative journalists, by definition, do all the time,” Greenwald wrote.

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