09.01.2011 Technology

US Department of Justice sends order to Twitter for Wikileaks-related account info

To help users protect their rights, it's our policy to notify users about law enforcement and governmental requests for their information"To help users protect their rights, it's our policy to notify users about law enforcement and governmental requests for their information"
09.01.2011 LISTEN

The U.S. Justice Department has obtained a court order directing Twitter to turn over information about the accounts of activists with ties to Wikileaks, including an Icelandic politician, a legendary Dutch hacker, and a U.S. computer programmer.

Birgitta Jónsdóttir, one of 63 members of Iceland's national parliament, said this afternoon that Twitter notified her of the order's existence and told her she has 10 days to oppose the request for information about activity on her account since November 1, 2009.

"I think I am being given a message, almost like someone breathing in a phone," Jónsdóttir said in a Twitter message.

The order also covers "subscriber account information" for Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army private charged with leaking classified information; Wikileaks volunteer Jacob Appelbaum; Dutch hacker and XS4ALL Internet provider co-founder Rop Gonggrijp; and Wikileaks editor Julian Assange.

Appelbaum, who gave a keynote speech at a hacker conference last summer on behalf of the document-leaking organization and is currently in Iceland, said he plans to fight the request in a U.S. court. Appelbaum, a U.S. citizen who's a developer for the Tor Project, has been briefly detained at the border and people in his address book have been hassled at airports.

The U.S. government began an criminal investigation of Wikileaks and Assange last July after the Web site began releasing what would become a deluge of confidential military and State Department files. In November, Attorney General Eric Holder said that the probe is "ongoing," and a few weeks later an attorney for Assange said he had been told that a grand jury had been empaneled in Alexandria, Va.

The order sent to Twitter initially was signed under seal by U.S. Magistrate Judge Theresa Buchanan in Alexandria, Va. on December 14, and gave the social networking site three days to comply. But on Wednesday, she decided that it should be unsealed and said that Twitter is now authorized to "disclose that order to its subscribers and customers," presumably so they could choose to oppose it. ( posted a copy of the documents on Friday.)

A wide-ranging court order
Buchanan's order isn't a traditional subpoena. Rather, it's what's known as a 2703(d) order, which allows police to obtain certain records from a Web site or Internet provider if they are "relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation."

The 2703(d) order is broad. It requests any "contact information" associated with the accounts from November 1, 2009 to the present, "connection records, or records of session times and durations," and "records of user activity for any connections made to or from the account," including Internet addresses used.

It requests "all records" and "correspondence" relating to those accounts, which appears to be broad enough to sweep in the content of messages such as direct messages sent through Twitter or tweets from a non-public account. That could allow the account holders to claim that the 2703(d) order is unconstitutional. (One federal appeals court recently ruled that under the Fourth Amendment, a 2703(d) order is insufficient for the contents of communications and search warrant is needed, although that decision is not binding in Virginia or San Francisco.)

A Twitter representative declined to comment on any specific legal requests, but told CNET: "To help users protect their rights, it's our policy to notify users about law enforcement and governmental requests for their information, unless we are prevented by law from doing so."
Buchanan's original order from last month directed Twitter not to disclose "the existence of the investigation" to anyone, but that gag order was lifted this week. Twitter's law enforcement guidelines say "our policy is to notify users of requests for their information prior to disclosure."

It's unclear why Buchanan changed her mind. Twitter didn't immediately respond to questions, but the most likely scenario is that its attorneys objected to the 2703(d) order on grounds that the law required that account holders be notified, and that the broad gag order was not contemplated by Congress when creating (d) orders in 1986 and could run afoul of the First Amendment.

Also unclear is how long Twitter stores full IP addresses in its logs; Google, for instance, performs a partial anonymization after six months.

Jónsdóttir was a close ally of Assange and supported efforts to turn the small north Atlantic nation into a virtual data haven. A New Yorker profile last year, for instance, depicted Jónsdóttir as almost an accidental politician whose self-described political views are mostly anarchist and who volunteered with Wikileaks.

At one point, the profile recounted, Assange was unshaven and his hair was a mess: "He was typing up a press release. Jonsdottir came by to help, and he asked her, 'Can't you cut my hair while I'm doing this?' Jonsdottir walked over to the sink and made tea. Assange kept on typing, and after a few minutes she reluctantly began to trim his hair."

Jónsdóttir even invited Assange to a reception -- this was before last year's series of high-profile releases -- held at the U.S. ambassador's residence in the capital of Reykjavik. "He certainly had fun at the party," Jónsdóttir told the U.K. Telegraph. "He went as my guest. I said it would be a bit of a prank to take him and see if they knew who he was. I don't think they had any idea."

But after Assange became embroiled in allegations of sexual assault, which have led to the Swedish government attempting to extradite him from the U.K., Jónsdóttir said the organization should find a spokesman who's not such a controversial figure.

"Wikileaks should have spokespeople that are conservative and not strong persons, rather dull, so to speak, so that the message will be delivered without the messenger getting all the attention," Jónsdóttir said at the time. Although she said she did not believe the allegations, she suggested that Assange step aside, which he did not do.

In a blog post, Gonggrijp disclosed the e-mail that Twitter sent him, which said: "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."

Gonggrijp noted that the Justice Department misspelled his name, and speculated that other Web companies and e-mail providers may have received similar requests and quietly complied. "It appears that Twitter, as a matter of policy, does the right thing in wanting to inform their users when one of these comes in," he said.