Google silent on WikiLeaks email warrant for nearly three years

The whistleblower organisation is demanding answers from Google over why it took so long to disclose that it had handed over details of three WikiLeaks' staffers' emails to the US government.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

WikiLeaks is seeking an explanation from Google over why the search giant took two-and-a-half years to tell three WikiLeaks staffers that it had shared details of their email communications with the US government.

WikiLeaks has written to Google chairman Eric Schmidt and the US Department of Justice to complain about the search company turning over emails and metadata to the US government as part of an investigation into WikiLeaks staff.

Details of the warrants emerged after Google notified WikiLeaks investigations editor Sarah Harrison, section editor Joseph Farrell, and senior journalist and spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson on Christmas Eve 2014 that it had handed over content from their personal accounts.

The main complaint from WikiLeaks is that Google's failure to notify them earlier prevented the three staffers from protecting their right to privacy under the Privacy Protection Act.

"The 'take everything' warrants are unconstitutionally broad and appear to violate the Privacy Protection Act so would have a good chance of being opposed; however, Google handed everything over before that was possible," the organisation said. Details handed to the US government included email content, metadata, contacts, draft emails, deleted emails, and IP addresses connected to the accounts.

WikiLeaks noted that its journalists do not use Google services for internal communications or for communicating with sources.

Under the warrants, Google was placed under a gag order and could not disclose any details of the investigation to those targeted by it. However, WikiLeaks argues that Google could still have fought the constraint as Twitter had done in 2011, when it revealed that several people, including Julian Assange, were the target of a criminal investigation related to the leaking of hundreds of thousands of documents from US army private Chelsea Manning. In that case, Twitter's legal department managed to have the gag order lifted.

In the letter to Schmidt, WikiLeaks' lawyers at the Center For Constitutional Rights said they were "astonished and disturbed that Google waited over two-and-a-half years to notify its subscribers that a search warrant was issued for their records".

The letter also outlines a request by Assange that Google should argue that WikiLeaks be informed of a search warrant if one existed. Schmidt confirms that he'll pass the request to Google's general counsel.

WikiLeaks' lawyers now want Google to cough up a full list of all material handed over to the US government and details of any pending legal proceedings. They're also demanding an explanation for why it took so long to inform the three staffers about its actions.

ZDNet has requested comment from Google and will update the story if it receives one.

A Google spokesperson told The Guardian that it follows the law like any other company. "When we receive a subpoena or court order, we check to see if it meets both the letter and the spirit of the law before complying. And if it doesn't we can object or ask that the request is narrowed. We have a track record of advocating on behalf of our users," the spokesperson is quoted as saying.

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