Friday, November 11, 2011

Twitter Must Hand Over Subscribers Information

By Jerry Smith Nov. 11 2011

In Alexandria, Virginia yesterday, U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady dealt a blow to Twitter and privacy advocates everywhere when he upheld Magistrate Judge Theresa Buchanan’s earlier ruling that Twitter had to give U.S. investigators the data it has on subscribers “associated with WikiLeaks”, including WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, U.S. soldier Bradley Manning, Icelandic parliamentarian Birgitta Jonsdottir, US computer researcher Jacob Appelbaum, and Dutch volunteer for WikiLeaks Rop Gonggrijp.

Prosecutors are seeking subscriber names, contact information, billing records, user activity, Internet Protocol addresses and source and destination e-mail addresses associated with the accounts, not the actual messages in them or the Twitter users who follow the accounts.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), on behalf of Jonsdottir, Appelbaum, and Gonggrijp had been fighting the U.S governments demand for their clients' Twitter records, arguing that the government’s subpoena violated their clients' privacy and First Amendment rights.

The lawyers for Jonsdottir, Appelbaum, and Gonggrijp have said that the government could use those IP addresses as a tracking device to pin down a specific computer used by an account holder, and with it, the user's physical location.

Assange and Manning did not contest the order. WikiLeaks and Assange have stated that they feel the U.S. lacks jurisdiction "over expressive activities beyond its borders," and did not take part in any of the hearings.

Manning is currently being held at the Joint Regional Correctional Facility in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, accused of leaking the embarrassing diplomatic cables, the classified documents about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and the 'Collateral Murder' video to WikiLeaks. He is currently facing over 30 charges, the most serious being 'aiding the enemy'. If found guilty of 'aiding the enemy', Manning could spend the rest of his life behind bars or get the death penalty.

In his 60-page opinion, Judge O'Grady wrote:
“The sealed affidavit clearly sets forth specific and articulable facts showing reasonable grounds to believe that the information sought by the government was relevant and material to the investigation. The government’s factual basis for the Twitter Order was significantly more concrete than ‘mere speculation’ or ‘blind request'.”

“The Twitter order did not violate the Constitution."

The ruling also said that the three individuals, Jonsdottir, Appelbaum, and Gonggrijp, have no reasonable expectation of privacy in their Twitter accounts because they agreed to the Twitter terms of service, which include permission for Twitter to provide information to law enforcement.

Prosecutors have said that federal law, specifically the 'Stored Communications Act', allows them to seek account information. They also claim that it is a routine investigative tool.

The 'Stored Communications Act' was enacted in 1986, and allows prosecutors to acquire certain electronic data without a search warrant or even a demonstration of probable cause. The government only has to show that it has a reasonable belief that the records it seeks are pertinent to an ongoing criminal investigation.

Judge O'Grady's order also allows the U.S. government to keep secret any other similar orders it may have sought from other social media sites like Facebook or MySpace. The lawyers for Jonsdottir, Appelbaum, and Gonggrijp have speculated that other websites were targeted with similar orders.

Aden Fine, a lawyer for the ACLU who represents Icelandic parliament member Birgitta Jonsdottir said:
"The government shouldn't be allowed to get information about individuals' Internet communications without a warrant, and it certainly shouldn't be able to do it in secret."
In a statement, Jonsdottir said:
"With this decision, the court is telling all users of online tools hosted in the U.S. that the U.S. government will have secret access to their data. People around the world will take note. I am very disappointed in today's ruling because it is a huge backward step for the United States' legacy of freedom of expression and the right to privacy."

The U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, declined to comment on the ruling.

It is unclear if Jonsdottir, Appelbaum, or Gonggrijp will appeal the ruling.

Here is a link to a pdf file of the full ruling at

Judge O'Grady's Full Ruling


  1. Boy this sucks.

    1. You knew it would happen though.