U.S. issues secret, warrantless court order for email data of Wikileaks' volunteer

Summary:The U.S. government forced Google and a small Californian ISP to hand over data belonging to a Wikileaks volunteer, reports say.

The U.S. government used a controversial electronic eavesdropping law to force Google and a small Internet service provider into handing over email account data of a Wikileaks volunteer, the Wall Street Journal reported overnight.

Using a controversial law, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act -- which allows the government and law enforcement to obtain email and phone records without a search warrant -- one of the companies fought the order through legal channels, but lost.

Both Google and Sonic.net, a small Internet provider based in Santa Rosa, California, were forced to turn over data to authorities, with Sonic resisting and fighting the warrant. The ISP told CNET that "we did manage to unsearl the specific order in order to provide it to Appelbaum", but could not offer any more details as the "the case remains under seal".

In response, according to security researcher Christopher Soghoian, Sonic.net has now "adopted a 2 week data retention policy for IP logs".

Search giant Google declined to comment on the issue, on whether it complied with the order or resisted, the Wall Street Journal said.

(Source: Ria Novosti)

Jacob Appelbaum, a Wikileaks volunteer and central to this case, had his email account searched for contacts and people he communicated with, rather than the contents of the emails that were sent and received, according to reports.

Though he has not been charged with any offence, the newspaper added, others report that he had been subject to interrogation at airports, nor has the government told Appelbaum why he is under surveillance.

The order Google received dated to the start of this year, January 4th, 2011, directing the search giant to reveal the IP address from which Applebaum logged into his Gmail account, along with the email addresses of those he communicated with dating back to November 1st, 2009.

Wikileaks angered and embarrassed the U.S. government with the release of the U.S. diplomatic cables this year and last, leading to the largest cache of classified material released into the public domain to date. Eric Holder, attorney general, is still investigating an "active criminal investigation" against the whistleblowing website.

Twitter fought a similar court order to hand over private information of Wikileaks supporters, including that of Appelbaum, as part of its ongoing investigation into the U.S. diplomatic cables leaks.

It is no secret, however, that under such investigations, government is more interested in who one communicates with, rather than the contents of such documents or email -- allowing law enforcement to build up a wider network of those involved and potential suspects, rather than warranted and difficult-to-obtain court orders, which can often tip off those involved to react with legal action.

Google started disclosing the number of requests it had received from the U.S. government in 2009. Including search warrants, subpoenas and requests under the controversial Electronic Communications Privacy Act, it complied with over 90 percent of those received.

Related:

Topics: Collaboration

About

Zack Whittaker writes for ZDNet, CNET, and CBS News. He is based in New York City.

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