When a federal judge ruled that Twitter must reveal the private data of three WikiLeaks associates on Thursday, privacy advocates died a little inside. The two organizations that had defended the three users, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundations (EFF), immediately filed mournful blog posts that respectively raised doubts about the United States government's secretive handling of the case and highlighted grave message the ruling sends about the future of privacy on the internet. But Wall Street Journal reporter Jennifer Valentine-DeVries sums up the implications of the case best with a leading question: "Should the government be able to collect information related to your Internet use without a warrant?" We now know that the federal court's answer is, "Yes."
The specifics of the case itself are both vague and complicated. Twitter first notified the three users — Jacob Appelbaum, Rop Gonggrijp and Birgitta Jonsdottir, a member of Parliament in Iceland — that Justice Department had demanded access to their private data with a warrant back in January, leading the ACLU and EFF to file three motions challenging the order on Jonsdottir's behalf. (EFF points out that the court has refused to reveal whether or not other companies received similar demands from the Feds.) The New York Times sums up the case from there:
The case has become a flash point for online privacy and speech, in part because the Justice Department sought the information without a search warrant last year. Instead, on the basis of a 1994 law called the Stored Communications Act, the government demanded that Twitter provide the Internet protocol addresses of three of its users, among other things. An Internet protocol address identifies and gives the location of a computer used to log onto the Internet.
Curious by the meaning of "among other things," we took a look at the latest court documents. (Flip ahead to page eight.) Based on the broad strokes of the legalese, we're led to believe that the Feds demanded a lot more than just the IP addresses, including email and mailing addresses, "records of session times and durations," "records of user activity" as well as "non-content information associated with the contents of any communication or file stored by or for the account(s)." Bradley Manning and Julian Assange are also listed as implicated users.
Regardless of how much information Twitter will now have to surrender to the Feds, the symbolic impact is severe. "With this decision, the court is telling all users of online tools hosted in the U.S. that the U.S. government will have secret access to their data," said Jonsdottir in reacting ot the judgement. "I am very disappointed in today's ruling because it is a huge backward step for the United States' legacy of freedom of expression and the right to privacy."
The ruling sets a precedent that will take time to be tested. However, given that the judge pointed to a ruling nearly two decades old to address a case that hinges on some technology less than five years old, we're not sure how long that will take. However, EFF offers a glimmer of hope in the precedent that Twitter sets in basically going behind the Feds' backs and notifying users of the warrant-less demands. The digital rights group "is urging other companies to follow Twitter's lead, stand with their customers, and promise to inform users when their data is sought by the government." What would Facebook do?