Department of Justice Grants Access to WikiLeaks Twitter Accounts

Yesterday, a federal judge in Virginia granted federal prosecutors access to the Twitter accounts of WikiLeaks principals, in addition to associated email and Twitter accounts.

The U.S. Magistrate Judge rejected arguments from the ACLU, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and private attorneys of the Twitter account-holders since the individuals had "already made their Twitter posts and associations publicly available."  In addition, the judge argued that the defendants had no fourth amendment rights to the privacy of their IP addresses and that federal law was inapplicable since prosecutors were not seeking the "contents of their communications."

In January 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice subpoenaed Twitter for information related to the WikiLeaks account holders.  The accounts belonged to an Icelandic politician, a legendary Dutch hacker, and a U.S. computer programmer.

WikiLeaks investigations began last July, when confidential military and State Department files began circulating online. U.S. Magistrate Judge Theresa Buchanan issued the subpoena to Twitter under seal in mid-December, and she gave Twitter 3-days to agree to the terms. Later, she allowed Twitter to release information to its account-holders to give them an opportunity to object to this order.

Buchanan's subpoena was not a traditional order; rather, it was a special type of court order that allows law enforcement to obtain information from Website or Internet providers (so long as the information pertains to a criminal investigation).  Under this provision, law enforcement can access general communications, including direct messages between the in-question Twitter accounts as well as other account-holders-- even if other parties are not sharing information publicly. For this reason, Twitter subscribers may find the provision unconstitutional as a violation of privacy.

Right now, it is ambiguous whether private messages will come into play, which is why the ruling remains questionable in the eyes of defendants and their supporters. In any case, the ruling is important for the federal government's interests in protecting confidential information that is important to the safety of its citizens, military, and informants.

Buchanan did allow certain documents to remain private. "The sealed documents at issue set forth sensitive nonpublic facts, including the identity of targets and witnesses in an ongoing criminal investigation," she wrote. These private documents will help maintain individuals' safety.

In a Tweet, Jónsdóttir-- one of the account-holders in question--said that it's now "time to apply pressure on social media to move their servers out of the U.S." He elaborated, "your information is not safe."

According to Mashable, the ACLU plans to appeal yesterday's ruling.