The U.S. government’s investigation against WikiLeaks and its supporters went beyond its efforts to obtain data from Twitter. A new report reveals that the government also used secret orders to obtain information from Google and internet service provider Sonic.net pertaining to the accounts of U.S.-based, former WikiLeaks spokesman Jacob Appelbaum.
The orders, issued last January for Google and in April for Sonic, remained secret until Sonic succeeded to convince a court to lift the seal on its order so that Appelbaum could be informed about it, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The order to Google directed the search giant to hand over the IP address Appelbaum used to log into his Gmail account as well as the email and IP addresses of anyone he communicated with going back to Nov. 1, 2009. That’s the month that former Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning is believed to have first made contact with WikiLeaks before allegedly leaking two U.S. military videos, as well as more than a million classified and otherwise sensitive military and U.S. State Department documents. The order to Sonic sought the same type of information, including the email addresses of people with whom Appelbaum communicated, but did not seek the content of that correspondence.
Sonic told the Journal that it sought to fight the order but lost, and was forced to turn over the requested information. Challenging the order was “rather expensive, but we felt it was the right thing to do,” Sonic’s chief executive, Dane Jasper, told the newspaper.
It’s unclear if Google fought the order it received.
“Obviously, we follow the law like any other company,” a Google spokeswoman told CNET. “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.”
Both Sonic and Google asked the court to lift the seal on the orders so that Appelbaum could be told about the requests, a source told the Journal. A court agreed to unseal the Sonic order on August 31.
The government is seeking the records under 18 USC 2703(d), a provision of the 1994 Stored Communications Act that governs law enforcement access to non-content internet records, such as transaction information. More powerful than a subpoena, but less so than a search warrant, a 2703(d) order is supposed to be issued when prosecutors provide a judge with “specific and articulable facts” that show the information sought is relevant and material to a criminal investigation. But the people targeted in the records demand don’t have to be suspected of criminal wrongdoing themselves.
Prosecutors also used a 2703(d) order last December to seek information from Twitter about accounts belonging to Appelbaum, as well as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, Dutch hacker and activist Rop Gonggrijp and Birgitta Jonsdottir, a member of Iceland’s parliament.
That order sought full contact details for the accounts (phone numbers and addresses), IP addresses used to access the accounts, connection records (“records of session times and durations”) and data transfer information, such as the size of data files sent to someone else and the destination IP.
The EFF and the ACLU had sought to fight the Twitter order, arguing in part that it violated the accountholders’ First Amendment rights. But in March, Judge Theresa Buchanan, in the Eastern District of Virginia, ruled that because the government was not seeking the content of the Twitter accounts, the subjects did not have standing to challenge the government’s request for the records.
It has long been suspected that the government used similar orders to obtain information about WikiLeaks supporters from ISPs, e-mail providers like Google and social networking sites like Facebook, but this had remained unconfirmed until now. Google had previously refused to comment about whether it had obtained an order in the WikiLeaks investigation.
A number of sealed dockets in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, suggested that there were at least four Justice Department records demands issued in the same manner as the December 2010 demand sent to Twitter. Last May, the American Civil Liberties Union, in conjunction with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, asked a federal judge to open those dockets to the public.
The orders are part of a grand jury investigation into leaks of classified information provided to WikiLeaks. Of all the people being targeted in the investigation so far, only Bradley Manning has been charged with any crimes. Manning has been in prison since May 2010 and is awaiting trial on charges that he improperly downloaded classified documents and passed them to a third party.
Image: Jacob Appelbaum speaking on behalf of WikiLeaks at The Next HOPE conference in New York in July 2010. Courtesy Cosmiclint/flickr