U.S. wins Twitter battle against foreign WikiLeaks collaborator

U.S. wins Twitter battle against foreign WikiLeaks collaborator

Summary: Let this be a warning to other foreign agents who want to cause harm to the U.S. Don't.


Sometimes people amuse me. Take, for example, the case of Birgitta Jonsdottir. She's the former WikiLeaks collaborator who's crying foul because a U.S. court upheld the United States' right to protect itself against her attacks.

This is no simple case of privacy, no matter what the foreign press would have you believe.

Jonsdottir is an MP, a member of the Icelandic parliament. That's roughly analogous to being a member of Congress here in the U.S. She's also a WikiLeaks collaborator, having last year enabled the trafficking of a top-secret U.S. government video through WikiLeaks.

Now, in a probe into her actions against U.S. interests, Jonsdottir's communications via Twitter are being investigated by the U.S. Justice Department. This week, a U.S. court granted DOJ access to her Twitter traffic, which Twitter is, quite properly, complying with.

Despite the cries of despair from deluded privacy advocates being duped by foreign governments, this is not a violation of social networking privacy. Instead, it's a government protecting itself from the nearly espionage-level actions of a member (a governing member!) of a foreign nation.

Let's imagine, say, how the U.K. would feel if, say, U.S. Congressman Ron Paul were to sneak into Number 10 Downing Street, steal some top-secret video, and post it online. Maybe Ron Paul isn't the best example, because he already seems a little strange. But what if, oh, Congressman John Boehner decided to go sneaking around, stealing confidential government documents from, say, Israel -- and then publishing them for everyone to see.

Put simply, those governments would be incensed. They might approach the U.S. and ask keep our people under control, or, more likely, they would consider these actions attacks by our government against theirs.

This is the case with Birgitta Jonsdottir. She's claiming the U.S. court decision is, "a huge blow for everybody that uses social media."

It's not. It's a blow for government agents who try to use services produced by a country they're spying against, who then fight back.

Let's deconstruct this one more step. A member of a foreign government stole information from our government and then used a social network, built, owned, and operated in our country to communicate with her collaborators.

Of course, we're going to crack down on that. We'd be fools not to. Regardless of the content of the video, our Justice Department is protecting our security from the actions of a foreign agent. An American company is cooperating with our Justice Department because their service was abused by the same foreign agent, all with the intent of causing harm to America.

So, no. This is not a privacy issue at all. It's a national security issue and our courts were 100% correct in their determination.

See also ZDNet's London Calling: U.S. judge upholds Twitter subpoena of Wikileaks’ followers

Let this be a warning to other foreign agents who want to cause harm to the U.S. Don't. And don't try hiding your conspiratorial communications in our networks. We'll find them, find you, and we will rout you out.

Topics: Social Enterprise, Enterprise Software, Government, Government US


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • What if Wikileaks was Zdnet?

    You receive secret leaks that are incredibly newsworthy and you (Zdnet) publish it, the US instead of targetting the leaker targets you. Targets your advertisers, targets people who express support for your newssite.

    What then?

    I'd remind you they haven't actually charged Wikileaks with anything, yet they're running fishing expeditions on the people who support them.

    And Wikileaks is not the leaker here. They've just been conflated with the leaker (the angle they're fishing for is 'incitement to leak' or some such).

    The Daily Show has more viewers than Fox News.
    • Agree; Wikileaks did not break into USA's classified databases, so this is

      @guihombre: ... obviously [b]free speech abuse[/b] on authorities' part .<br><br>By the way, thanks to Wikileaks we finally learned the truth about some of nasty international policy practice.<br><br>For example, how ambassador's office in Georgia (I mean separate country here, not a State) was reporting factual information via closed channels about who started the war of August of 2008 (it was Georgia, not South Ossetia, and not, the more so, Russia) to Condoleezza Rice's office, while she ordered to brainwash public in their open communications -- so public would be again scared of "Evil Russia" "attacking" "poor little Georgia", while Russia here only responded according to their official UNO-certified, three-side signed obligations to maintain peace and calm down any aggressor in the region, what they did in just a week. <br><br>Obviously, this wall of lie about the situation was [b]one of the grossest examples of Orwellian Ministry of Truth[/b] in the works. All the media were manipulated by misinformation from Secretary of State office to present upside-down picture.<br><br>This approach probably had political motive, since the new wave of anti-Russian scare was giving points to "old soldier" John MacCain's campaign comparing to "inexperienced" Obama (whether Obama or MacCain would be actually better it is totally different topic, which I do not discuss).

      Such stories need to be uncovered, or else authorities will more and more manipulate public opinion.
      • Russian armed South Ossetia

        On the contrary, Wikileaks revealed Russian armed South Ossetia and started covert action to invoke a war.
        If you can point to the Wikileaks you refer to, then please do so, because I firmly believe Russia did exactly that, and exactly for the purpose of threatening the Baku pipeline that was bypassing their control on middle Asian oil sales.

        This is a good summary of the Wikileaks concerned are here:

        So I view your comments are straight disinformation.
      • USA armed Georgia and this is the country which started the war according

        @guihombre: ... to both USA's Abmassador's office in Georgia and European Union commission (actually, it was Georgia's thirteen war since the early 1990s since all of their presidents were elected on the mottos about reclaiming disputed territories).<br><br>The point here not who armed who, but who has started the war, and how Secretary of State office lied to media about that, receiving factual information via closed channels.

        And this is good that the Orwellian story is uncovered thanks to Wikileaks.
      • @dderss

        No problem, this is the great thing about Wikileaks, you can quote your sources and we can both read the background.

        I've given you my view of this, and have read some (admittedly not all) of the Wikileaks around this, that Guardian article seems typical of those leaks that I read. So feel free to show your workings and basis that contradict my world view and I will read those leaks too.

        As to who fired the first shot, I would have to say that is was South Ossetian separatists acting as a Russian proxy. The motive was very clear to me, I noted that Russia had been reselling middle Asian oil and gas, that the Baku pipeline that was then soon to run across Georgia threatened that control, at the same time it was cutting gas supplies to Europe showing it's power, and pressuring Belarussia into closer ties with Russia.

        Thus I concluded when Georgia started a clampdown on Ossetian separatists small scale attacks, that those separatists would be funded by Russia to start a proxy war, and sure enough Russia did it's chest banging and invaded Georgia. All very Russian and all very predictable.

        I noticed that it immediately had sufficient troops in the area, again another strong indicator of planning.

        But all of this is just an assembly of my own common sense coupled to the Wikileaks I read, so please feel free to describe this in your own sense and own wikileaks quotes.

        As to the McCain angle, he is a pacifist who fights as a last resort, and there was no backup to Georgia when Russian invaded, so I don't believe that scenario fits the facts.

        But you comments overall do remind me why Wikileaks deserves some sort of award. Perhaps a peace prize?
      • As I said, the background of the war is totally different topic from what I

        @guihombre: ... was talking about.

        Of course, Russia had, and still has the troops around the borders, especially since both South Ossetian and Russian diplomats were sending alarming (open) reports about the planned war days before 8th August, when the war actually started. The war was not unexpected. Rice's office ignored these diplomatic warnings as if they did not exist.

        But, anyway, there is no way to dispute that Georgia has started the war, as it documented EU commission results, and Ambassador's messages.

        Since this fact is established, there has to be motive for Secretary of State to brainwash the public. [b]Here we go to theoretical part[/b]. For now, there is no other motive more explaining than the approaching elections in which file-hard by Cold War Vietnam hero John MacCain would look as much better to fight with "Evil Russia" comparing to mild and inexperienced Obama.

        Or would you propose any other motive? Why else this brainwashing could be needed if not as an attempt to support Republican candidate by Republican authorities?
      • Notice that in the beginning even Western media reported actual information


        1 August 2008

        Georgia accused of lethal attack
        Europe / 1 August 2008

        The separatist government in the breakaway province of South Ossetia has accused Georgia of killing six people and injuring seven in an attack.

        2 August 2008

        South Ossetia evacuates children
        Europe / 2 August 2008

        The breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia says it is evacuating children to neighbouring Russia, amid renewed violence. The authorities???

        Russia vows to defend S Ossetia
        Europe / 5 August 2008

        Russia will intervene if conflict erupts in the breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia, a senior Russian diplomat has warned. Special ambassador???

        Page last updated at 03:31 GMT, Friday, 8 August 2008 04:31 UK
        Heavy fighting in South Ossetia

        Georgian government forces have attacked the breakaway region of South Ossetia, in an attempt to crush the rebels there.

        Georgian jets bomb separatists

        Georgian jets patrol the skies over South Ossetia and attack separatist positions.

        [b]Only after[/b] the media were transferred into command by Secretary of State to brainwash people with upside-down truths about this war. Mind you, the heavily armed and military trained country of thirteen wars in twenty years which leaders (all them) openly declared aggression towards disputed territories as en election slogan, was being presented as a poor victim of evil Putin. ;))
      • RE: U.S. wins Twitter battle against foreign WikiLeaks collaborator

      • RE: U.S. wins Twitter battle against foreign WikiLeaks collaborator

        I have held people kicking around about wikileaks. If any one thought that the language used is always diplomatic and information is correct was missing the point.

        These people call each other names and exchange rubbish information daily. It is part of their business. But wikileaks was wrong to publish such information because it has, as you can see, very little effect in the way nationa treat each other.
    • RE: U.S. wins Twitter battle against foreign WikiLeaks collaborator

      @guihombre Zdnet would be under the same investigation that Wikileaks is.

      It seems that Wikileaks is dulling people's senses. Investigations always precede an company or individual being charged. A mass quantity of American diplomatic cables were obtained by Wikileaks. How this occurred is the focus of the investigate, and what was Wikileaks involvement in it. If the documents just appeared in their box, then Wikileaks has absolutely nothing to worry about.
      • RE: U.S. wins Twitter battle against foreign WikiLeaks collaborator


        The American government is a government by the people, of the people and for the people. Wikileaks exposed the fact the the people in positions of power in Washington are not "of" the people. The are not acting at the popular behest or "by" the people. The arguably were not acting in the best interests "for" the people. Therefore, the people harmed by Wikileaks are NOT the American government.
  • Trashy authoritarian nonsense

    didn't leak anything, they published leaked data that was given to them as is their god given right , and as has been protected by the courts as a first ammendment right since the elsberg case.

    A "lecturer" in journalism gloating cheering whistleblowers are getting screwed by the government for activities that promote transparency is a mind-boggling. "Only in america"
    • RE: U.S. wins Twitter battle against foreign WikiLeaks collaborator


      Obviously DG can't handle the truth ;-)
  • RE: U.S. wins Twitter battle against foreign WikiLeaks collaborator

    At some point, people will get tired of being beholden to US interests and companies like Twitter will move their operations to other countries. I don't condone anybody breaking US laws, but heavy-handed surveillance is not going to be acceptable to the worldwide user community. They have other options, and will use them if pushed.
    terry flores
  • Hardly the best journalism.

    This is a particularly cheap article. "collaborator" a nasty choice of word, and the choice of accompanying photo is insulting to those who have given their lives for freedom. To be frank, the whole Wikileaks saga reeks of "shoot the messenger", and so many seem happy to fall hook line and sinker for it.
    Particularly disingenuous for a journalist to decry the use of investigative techniques to expose cover-ups.
  • nationalistic rubbish

    This story is the biggest load of nationalist crap. the video referred to is a video of a warcrime perpetrated by american military, the deliberate murder of civilians journalists and children. Do you really defend actions, such as those, done in your name and justify the cover-up of such vile act. You are unbelievable. and no doubt this comment won't reach the page - free speech we'll see
  • If this was meant to be ironic, I didn't get it.

    Dear David,

    I do hope your article above is meant to be ironic as otherwise it would contain a multitude of factual errors and would be highly misleading.

    However, in the case this article isn't meant to be ironic (irony, after all, sometimes really doesn't come across on the internet), let me take the liberty to point out the
    worst of the errors:

    Firstly, Ms. Jonsdottir did NOT steal any information, be it classified or not, AT ALL.

    The video showing the Baghdad airstrike, as well as the diplomatic cables and the field reports from Iraq and Afghanistan were allegedly (!) leaked to WikiLeaks by a U.S. military serviceman, Private First Class Bradley Manning.
    Please note that Pfc. Manning has been held in custody for more than 530 days and still has not been charged with any crime yet, hence the alleged leaker.

    Secondly, Ms. Jonsdottir isn't the only person targeted by the DOJ's probe into WikiLeaks supporters' twitter data. Mr Jacob Appelbaum, a computer security researcher and a US citizen, Mr Rop Gonggrijp, a Netherlands-based IT-expert, Mr Assange and Mr Manning were also targeted for their (supposed) connections with WikiLeaks.

    Thirdly, Twitter received the sealed court order to reveal any information pertaining to the individuals I cited above in December 2010. Twitter was asked to secretly hand over any data they held on these individuals, e.g. without being able to (legally) inform these individuals that the US goverment's DOJ requested their twitter user data.
    It was only after twitter decided to fight this sealed order in court that the gagging order was lifted and that twitter was able to inform these individuals on what was going on.

    Ms Jonsdottir, Mr Appelbaum and Mr Gonggrijp then filed a motion against the DOJ's court order, supported by the Electronic Frontiers Foundation (EFF) and the ACLU.
    Their case was ruled against this week, meaning that twitter will have to hand over the relevant data to the US DOJ.
    However, it can surely be said that twitter didn't take the easy way here and decided to stand up for their users by fighting the gag order that kept it from informing its users that the US DOJ requested their user data - rather than secretly complying with the court order.

    To take this one step further, this does not only affect social networking sites (twitter, Facebook and the like) but basically any www-based service, such as online-shopping sites, cloud-computing services, and webmail services.

    The important point here is that the DOJ's probe into the twitter accounts of Ms Jonsdottir, Mr Gonggrijp, and Mr Appelbaum was ONLY revealed because twitter found that their users should at least be properly informed of what was going on (the chances of overturning the court order and to stop the DOJ from gaining access to the data were rather slim from the start if one takes a closer look at the relevant US legislation).

    This is not limited to a privacy issue but also raises the question on how the online equivalent of an offline house search should be conducted.
    For example, if you were under investigation for (alleged) links to, say a money-laundering network, the police would most certainly start its prelimary investigation in secret, e.g. without telling you so as to avoid that you a) run and b) destroy potential evidence. At one point into the investigation, the police and the relevant judicial authorities will then decide to either drop to investigation or to further pursue it and possibly charge you with something. In order to so, they will need to have reasonable grounds, e.g. in order to issue an arrest warrant or to obtain a search warrant for your house - and this search warrant has to be issued, in any case, by a judge.

    If a search warrant was issued for your house, the investigation would move from being "secret" to "non-secret" the moment the police comes knocking at your front and back doors simultaneously.
    This is how offline searches are (usually) conducted (there are some notable exceptions, mostly due to the Patriot Act, though).

    Now imagine the offline equivalent of the twitter probe:
    There's a prelimary investigation against you in secret. The police obtains a search warrant from a judge to secretly search your house while you are away. One fine day, you leave for your job and lock your front door behind you, suspecting nothing as you don't know what's going on.
    The police then secretly gains lawful access to your house and starts looking around. They are taking a look at your mail, more specifically they take at look at your correspondence to check whom you corresponded with at with point in time but claim to not read the contents of your correspondence.
    The police also takes a look at further things in your house, e.g. your credit card and electricity bills and they might even take a look at your basket with dirty laundry - and you still have no idea what's going on.
    USPS is asked to hand over any correspondence addressed to you before the postman drops it into your mailbox. USPS thinks that this ain't a grand idea without you knowing it and files for a court motion to inform you that your mail's being fiddled with. Surprisingly, they win this motion and tell you that there's a warrant for your mail somewhere out there and that all information on whom you correspond with etc. must be handed over to the relevant law-enforcing authorities - dating back to late 2009.

    So now you know that some kind of investigation is going on but wouldn't you keep wondering whether any other coperation or institution had also been asked to hand over your personal information, e.g your bank, your credit card company, your life insurance company etc. ?!

    How would you know that any of those corporations had not secretly complied with the relevant authorities' requests and handed over your data a while ago - without you knowing whether they had even received a request to hand over a request for your data?!

    The bottom line of my lenghty analogy is that there's a huge discrepancy between offline searches and online searches. The stakes for offline searches are usually higher than for online searches - which makes things look even worse when considering that online searches usually don't leave traces and are much easier to execute than offline searches (no need for a 6-men police squad to pull up at your house at dawn).

    In the WikiLeaks supporters twitter probe, this is exactly the case: the individuals involved that twitter (in my offline analogy above, USPS) was asked by the DOJ to hand over their data - but they have virtually no clue if other companies were also asked to hand over their user data.

    In Applebaum's case, reports have transpired that Google was asked to hand over all information (e.g. connnections to and from his account(s), email addresses of the people he corresponded with etc. - except the emails themselves), pertaining to any Google Mail accounts of his.
    It has also been reported that an ISP has been ordered to hand over any connection data relating to Mr Applebaum.

    And that's only the tip of the iceberg, I'm afraid.

    I suppose it's pretty safe to assume that other companies were also asked to reveal the user details of Ms Jonsdottir, Mr Appelbaum and Mr Gonggrijp in secret.

    Keep in mind that nobody has been charged with anything in the WikiLeaks case yet.

    Other than that, I'd advise you to conduct some proper research before writing up your next article - in this case, a simple search of Google News or similar outlets would have been sufficient to establish that Ms Jonsdottir has NOT stolen any data of the US goverment and that the data was rather leaked to WikiLeaks by a member of the US Armed Forces.
    • RE: U.S. wins Twitter battle against foreign WikiLeaks collaborator


      In my opinion, your views and statements are accurate. But I think there's more. There are two problems here. Intelligence gathering agencies must follow very specific laws within the U.S. The DOJ in this case, initially attempted to circumvent the laws. I'm troubled by the Judge's rationale and conclusions in granting access to the DOJ.

      The second problem is how this case is being viewed; is it a case of espionage by a foreign government / agent. This is the part where I think the case falls off the rails and if financially possible, will have to be appealed to the Supreme Court.

      An elected MP of Finland does not speak for the Government of Iceland, nor does the MP (in this case) manage, supervise, act or represent any intelligence agency of Iceland or any other foreign power. MP's all over the world have said and published far worse than what Birgitta Jonsdottir has been alleged to carried out.

      Just because the service used to publish, document or announce is based in the United States (Twitter), does not mean it's an automatic right of U.S. DoJ to monitor communications of a government representative which represents a government outside of its borders. In fact that responsibility lies with the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency. And this is where the events of 9/11 triggered new law on how agencies can share information and obtain it. The act which Birgitta Jonsdottir did, was not an act of Terrorism. And if that's not the case, what U.S. Law did she violate?

      She didn't violate any treason law, she's not a U.S. citizen.
      She didn't attack the United States in any form.
      She didn't violate any Icelandic law of privacy or free speech.

      I certainly do not see where Birgitta Jonsdottir is a clear and present danger to the United States. If she was, then the U.S. government would have asked for her immediate arrest through Interpol and charged her with violating a specific law.

      To simply build a case in the manner it has, is one of serious concern for all. International Phishing scams have more legal protection than this case does.
      • RE: U.S. wins Twitter battle against foreign WikiLeaks collaborator

        @doug.hanchard@... I believe you should proofread before you write. Birgitta Jonsdottir was not named as an MP of Finland acting for Iceland. She was named as an MP for Iceland. And saying that a Member of Parliament doesn't speak for the Government of Iceland is like saying that John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi don't speak for the Government of the U.S. They most certainly do speak for us, although they are not the last word on policy. They represent the American people, and they have a significant impact on policy, both domestic and foreign.

        It isn't as though the Government asked for the content of emails, private messages to tech support, etc. There is a good in-depth article on this at http://www.pcworld.com/businesscenter/article/243601/us_judge_upholds_investigators_access_to_twitter_data.html.
    • I think the Feds are over reaching, again.

      @nyxpersephone - i don't respect the courts decision in this case. There was / is no evidence that Jonsdottir was attacking the U.S. and using her Twitter account for that purpose - or at least what we can tell.

      Though the argument "could" be made that the evidence are in her Twitter activity, I would have thought that the court would be smarter than this to "assume" that the argument is valid without some proof.

      (Seemingly, we never have all the facts and many of the facts are not provided in court documents. The DOJ may be working with info from the CIA. It reminds me of those photos of weapons of mass destruction presented to the U.N. for their approval to invade Iraq. Of course, the photos proved to be phony and deliberately misleading)

      In any case, the U.S. has always monitored people who are considered a threat to the country, in one way or another "and" by one of our sub governments or another or a combination thereof"

      At least Twitter got the gag order lifted and at least was able to let people know their accounts are being "tapped" by the feds.