The WikiLeaks scandal flared up again this weekend, and this time Twitter took center stage: the US Justice Department issued a subpoena for tweets pertaining to several people suspected of being associated with WikiLeaks, as well as the official @WikiLeaks account. And – in a move that has online privacy advocates up in arms – the subpoena extends to anyone following these accounts, too.
The subpoena was issued December 14th, and a full text copy can be found at Salon.com. It was not until late last week, however, that the subpoena was unsealed and Twitter was able to inform Assange and others targeted of the US government’s intentions.
Twitter itself fought to have the subpoena unsealed, with WikiLeaks saying that they were able to see the subpoena “thanks to legal actions by Twitter” – to which the company has only publicly said that its policy is to notify its users of any potential government action, if possible.
Shortly after the subpoena was unsealed, WikiLeaks informed its followers that their privacy could be violated by simply following @WikiLeaks:
The subpoena itself demands information – including direct messages, telephone numbers, addresses, – be released to the Department of Justice from Twitter this Friday. An Icelandic Member of Parliament, Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and several others are named as specific targets of the subpoena.
However, anyone who is linked to these accounts could be a target, too.
The subpoena requests “all records and other information relating to the accounts…including:”
“records of user activity for any connections made to or from the Account… [and] correspondence and notes of records related to the account(s).” (emphasis mine)
This means that anyone connected to the accounts in question could see their private information in the hands of the Department of Justice. And with over 600,000 people following the @WikiLeaks account alone, there would be huge repercussions to this collection of data.
Salon.com reports that WikiLeaks believes that other companies – naming Facebook and Google in particular – may have also received a subpoena similar to the one that Twitter received. If this is the case, the amount of private user data now or soon-to-be in the hands of the Department of Justice is staggering.
Assange and Icelandic MP Birgitta Jonsdottir have vowed to fight the subpoena, with Assange calling it “harassment.”
Despite the tension that this subpoena has caused, Twitter itself has come out of the situation relatively unscathed. The company had the option to merely comply with the court order, but it chose instead to fight to make the information available to the account holders whose information was at stake.
The Guardian quotes Rop Gonggrijp, a Dutch hacker with purported connections to WikiLeaks, as saying:
“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. Heaven knows how many places have received similar subpoenas and just quietly submitted all they had on me.”