Twitter Resists WikiLeaks Subpoena

Erik Hayden

Late last Friday,

the Department of Justice obtained a court order requesting user data

from some Twitter accounts associated with WikiLeaks. The government's

request, which is unusual because it became public, has since been challenged by the micro-blogging site. Twitter has, by some measures, resisted and was able to inform users that

the government was requesting account data. Now that order has become

public, some pundits are wondering whether other companies (like

Facebook and Google, who the government presumably also requested

information from) will follow suit:

  • What the Court Order Says  At Geekosystem, Max Eddy

lists the information the government has requested from the

micro-blogging site. "The order requires Twitter to provide information

on specific users, such as IP addresses, physical addresses, and banking

information," Eddy writes. So far, only a handful of users have been

acknowledged as targets of the probe, including Icelandic Member of

Parliament Birgitta Jonsdottir and Dutch programmer Rop Gonggrijp."

underscores the most important part of Twitter's move to challenge the

government's gag order. Normally, "if the [government's] records request

comes with a gag order, the company can't notify anyone. And it’s quite

routine for law enforcement to staple a gag order to a records

request." Twitter, in contrast, "briefly carried the torch for its users

during that crucial period when, because of the gag order, its users

couldn't carry it themselves," Singel writes. "The company's action in

asking for the gag order to be overturned sets a new precedent that we

can only hope that other companies begin to follow." While Twitter isn't

the first tech company to fend of government requests for user data, it

appears to be one of the few that's actually showing "guts" and taking a

stand for its principles.

  • But Why Was It the Only Company

To Challenge the Subpoena?  "It's reasonable to assume" that the person

leading or "playing a significant role" in challenging the "secrecy

aspect" of the order is Alexander Macgillivray (Twitter's General

Consul), writes Fast Company's E.B. Boyd.

"By making the subpoena public, Twitter takes itself out of the drama"

and gets to play the role of "good citizen." Macgillvray's guidance may

set the company apart from Google and Facebook in the response to the

assumed records request. "We may never know [if Google and Facebook

caved to the request], notes Boyd. "But if they did, it may in part be

due to the fact that they did not have a cyber-law bricoleur like Macgillivray helping them think through their possible options."

  • This Could Be a 'Desperate Gesture' on the Justice Department's Part  At NextGov, Dawn Lim

figures that "the backlash the subpoena has triggered--and the awkward

position in which it puts Justice--could outweigh the intelligence value

of the data that would be obtained." The reason why the Justice

Department's move is "particularly naive" is that Twitter "operates as a

microblogging platform, and is only secondarily a direct messaging

service. Because of the 140 character limit, Twitter is an unlikely

vessel for the business of leaking." Futhermore, "that WikiLeaks'

640,000 followers think they are targets of this subpoena puts Justice

in a public relations soup it didn't anticipate," points out Lim. "The

original subpoena, issued Dec. 14, was a sealed order. Once Twitter

successfully contested the secrecy of that order, obtaining the right to

alert those mentioned in the subpoena, the story blew up."

  • WikiLeaks

Twitter Followers Feeling Nervous  "WikiLeaks lost nearly 3,000

followers in the several hours after the [subpoena] announcement,"

observes Parmy Olson at Forbes. "But WikiLeaks Tweeted yesterday:

'Too late to unfollow; trick used is to demand the lists, dates and IPs

of all who received our Twitter messages.'" Which begs the question:

what information does Twitter have about Wikileaks followers? Olson uses

Dutch programmer Rop Gonggrijp--one person the government is seeking

information about--as an example:

Gonggrijp says on a post this morning

that it has his Tweets, which are publicly accessible, and the IP

numbers he connected from. He doesn’t use Twitter all that much,

choosing to post through a plugin on his blog, and never uses it to send

or receive private messages. "In other words, he writes, "what Twitter

has on me is unspectacular." He believes his inclusion on the list of

names has something to do with WikiLeaks’ release of the 'Collateral Murder"

video last April, which shows the shooting of a Reuters photographer

and several civilians from a U.S. helicopter over Baghdad. Gonggrijp had

travelled to Iceland to help disseminate the video.

  • It's Not Technically a Subpoena, It's a 'Judicially-Authorized Order' also known as a "D-order" explains Julian Sanchez

at the Cato Institute. "Unlike traditional wiretaps, D-order requests

for data aren’t even subject to mandatory reporting requirements--which

means surveillance geeks may be confident this sort of thing is fairly

routine, but the general public lacks any real sense of just how

pervasive it is," writes Sanchez. "Whatever your take on WikiLeaks,

then, this rare peek behind the curtain is one more reminder that our

digital privacy laws are long overdue for an upgrade."