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In Wikileaks-Related Case, Court Says Twitter-Account Info Isn’t Private

Last year, as part of a broad web offensive against Wikileaks, U.S. government lawyers filed court papers seeking information about several Twitter accounts connected to the controversial website. That included any account information connected to Wikileaks, Bradley Manning or Julian Assange, as well as an Icelandic legislator, Birgitta Jonsdottir, a.k.a. @birgittaj. Earlier this year, Lawyers from public-interest groups pushed back, saying the government’s information grab violates the Fourth Amendment because it’s an unreasonable search. Now a court has ruled that these controversial Twitter users shouldn’t have any expectation of privacy with their accounts.

The government asked for a variety of information about any accounts associated with Assange, Manning, Jonsdottir, Wikileaks itself, or Dutch hacker Rop Gongrijp. That included usernames or screen names, as well as more detailed information like telephone numbers or IP addresses they used, length of service and types of services used, and payment information, including credit card or bank account numbers.

In this case, Twitter went to unusual lengths to make it easy for a few high-profile users to push back against the request, and the government still won. This order indicates that for now, it’s going to continue to be easy for the government to get a wide array of user info from online service providers.  

Twitter gave the users a chance to respond to the government’s information request, and Jonsdottir got public-interest attorneys from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union to intervene on her behalf. The EFF/ACLU attempt to block the government’s information request has failed, but in a statement released shortly after the Friday decision, the groups said they will appeal the ruling.

For its part, Twitter’s Global PR account addressed the case Friday, saying that “our policy is designed to let users defend themselves.”

In her order [PDF], U.S. Magistrate Judge Theresa Buchanan wrote that the users relinquished certain privacy rights when they voluntarily handed over their account information to Twitter. She also disagreed with EFF attorneys’ arguments that the IP address and locational information attached to Wikileaks accounts was “intensely revealing.”

EFF and ACLU had also asked for more documents in the case to be made public. Buchanan did grant that request in part, opening up one of two court dockets relating to the case public.

It isn’t clear if this information request involves more companies than just Twitter; not all companies follow Twitter’s policy of notifying users that their private information has been requested by the government, although some have argued that Twitter’s user-friendly policy should be the industry standard.

For her part, Icelandic legislator Jonsdottir still feels comfortable enough using Twitter to denounce the U.S. court’s decision. “Time (NYSE: TWX) to apply pressure on social media to move their servers out of the USA if this ruling holds,” she tweeted on Friday. “Your info is not save [sic].”