December 6, 2011 By Julia Angwin
Three WikiLeaks associates are appealing a court order that would force Twitter Inc. to hand over information from their accounts without a search warrant.
The WikiLeaks associates – Jacob Appelbaum, Rop Gonggrijp, and Birgitta Jonsdottir – have also applied for an injunction to prevent Twitter from being forced to turn over account data before the appeals court has ruled.
Without an injunction, the associates will “suffer irreparable harm from the production of their private information,” their attorneys argue in a filing to U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. “By contrast, a stay will cause only minimal, temporary harm to the government.”
The government, however, says that it has waited long enough for the Twitter account information. “The district court has found the order to be lawful and valid, and it is our position that Twitter is under an obligation to comply with that lawful order,” said Peter Carr, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia.
Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
This skirmish is the latest round in a year-long battle over the records of the WikiLeaks associates, who have not been charged with wrongdoing. On Dec. 13, 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice obtained a court order for information from the Twitter accounts of the three individuals who had been publicly associated with WikiLeaks.
The order sought the “Internet protocol,” or IP, addresses of the devices from which people logged into their accounts. An IP address is a unique number assigned to a device connected to the Internet. The order was filed under seal, but Twitter successfully won from the court the right to notify the subscribers that their information was being sought.
The WikiLeaks associates filed a motion to vacate the court order, arguing that their data should be subject to the Fourth Amendment’s provisions against unreasonable searches – and that the government should have to show probable cause that a crime has been committed to obtain the information.
In November, U.S. District Court Judge Liam O’Grady turned down their request, ruling that they had no reasonable expectation of privacy when they used Twitter services, even if the information in question was known only to Twitter and not publicly disclosed. The associates filed a notice of their appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on Nov. 23.
Information from Twitter accounts is not the only data sought by the government as part of its investigation of WikiLeaks. The Wall Street Journal also reported earlier this year that the government also has made secret requests to Google Inc. and California Internet provider Sonic.net Inc. for information on Mr. Appelbaum, a computer developer for a nonprofit that provides free tools that help people maintain their anonymity online.