Government can access Twitter account data in WikiLeaks probe, appeals court rules

Lilly Chapa | Secret Courts | News | January 31, 2013

Government investigators in the WikiLeaks probe can access Twitter users’ account information, a federal appeals court ruled earlier this week. Court records explaining why the accounts were subpoenaed will also remain sealed, according to the ruling.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. (4th Cir.) upheld a lower court’s decision that Twitter must hand over the subpoenaed non-content information of three accounts and that the government’s reasoning for obtaining the information must be kept secret. Prosecutors submitted their rationale for accessing the account information to the court but the documents remained sealed.

“This case shows just how easy it is for the government to obtain information about what people are doing on the Internet, and it highlights the need for our electronic privacy laws to catch up with technology,” American Civil Liberties Union attorney Aden Fine told The Associated Press in an interview. “The government should not be able to get private information like this without getting a warrant and also satisfying the standard required by the First Amendment, and it shouldn’t be able to do so in secret except in unusual circumstances.”

In 2010, the government subpoenaed Twitter for information about the accounts of three people connected to WikiLeaks, a website that posts classified information. The ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which represented the account holders, argued that the subpoena violated their privacy rights and they should know why the government wanted their information.

A lower court determined that the Electronic Communications Privacy Act allowed the government to seek the account information and that the need to keep the investigation a secret outweighed the right to public access.

“The [lower court] considered the stated public interests and found that the government’s interests in maintaining the secrecy of its investigation, preventing potential subjects from being tipped off, or altering behavior to thwart the government’s ongoing investigation, outweighed those interests,” the court order stated.

Under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the government can access non-content account information — such as the contact information of account holders and where and when e-mail messages or tweets were sent — without a search warrant or probable cause. The government does not have to inform users why they are accessing the information either.

Despite the fact that the government is accessing the account information with a subpoena, the appeals court compared the proceedings to the issuance of search warrants, which are kept sealed.

“Because secrecy is necessary for the proper functioning of the criminal investigations at this phase, openness will frustrate the government’s operations,” the court order stated.