US judge orders Twitter to surrender WikiLeaks data

12 Mar 2011

A US Judge has ordered social networking service Twitter to hand over data of at least three users who were in contact with controversial website WikiLeaks. One of the user’s accounts belongs to Icelandic parliament member Birgita Jonsdottir.

US President Barack Obama’s administration obtained a court order last year seeking information from the Twitter accounts over WikiLeaks’ release of sensitive diplomatic cables that included information on what was happening on the ground in Afghanistan.

The US Department of Justice sought the court order as part of a grand jury probe into whether WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange violated American criminal laws.

Judge Theresa Buchanon rejected the three Twitter users’ argument that surrendering their data violated free speech.

Judge dismisses first and fourth amendment arguments

Buchanan said there was no first amendment issue because the activists already made their Twitter posts and associations publicly available.

The judge also dismissed the argument that the order violated the fourth amendment to the US Constitution, which protects people against unreasonable searches.

WikiLeaks said the three never worked for the site but that two helped make public a video that showed a US helicopter strike in 2007 in Baghdad that killed several people where Apache pilots misidentified a Reuters cameraman as an insurgent with a rocket launcher.

The American Civil Liberties Union said it intends to appeal the decision. Ben Siracusa Hillman of the Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project explained: “The court rejected our efforts to overturn an earlier court order that had required Twitter to turn over the records. We had challenged the order on the grounds that it was overbroad and violated our client’s constitutional rights.

“We had also sought to make public court documents concerning the government’s attempts to collect private records from Twitter and other companies. The court agreed to make public all of the documents related to the users’ legal challenge to the order to Twitter, but rejected our request to make public documents the government had filed in order to obtain that order.

“We are disappointed with the court’s decision. The government should not be able to secretly gather private information related to individuals’ internet communications. Unless the government obtains a warrant, individual users should have the right to find out about these orders and to go to court to challenge the government’s justification for obtaining them.

“Today’s ruling — which rejected users’ ability to even mount a challenge in many circumstances — fails to recognise that in today’s world, these sorts of secret government requests involve personal and private information. Our privacy in our internet communications should not be so easily sacrificed.

“The fight is far from over, though. We plan to appeal today’s decision,” Siracusa Hillman vowed.

Twitter settles over Obama security breaches

In related news, according to Wired, Twitter has settled a federal complaint over a pair of 2009 breaches in which hackers were able with relative ease to gain access to user accounts, including one used by Obama.

The Federal Trade Commission had accused Twitter of promising privacy and security to users while, it alleged, protections were so lax hackers were able to take over accounts with little effort.

The final consent order, announced Friday, does not impose fines but does require that Twitter tighten its security system, perform security audits every two years for the next decade and not make deceptive security claims.

Twitter agreed to the punishments, but admitted no violation of law.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years