Media, Politics, Sci-Tech

US Twitterises its battle against WikiLeaks

By Sipho Hlongwane 10 January 2011

A subpoena for the Twitter accounts of four people linked to WikiLeaks went public on Friday - the first tangible sign the US government is dead serious about pursuing WikiLeaks for leaking its classified documents. Given the sheer size of the battle it faces to pin anything on WikiLeaks, is this a matter of investigators going through the motions to protect themselves? By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

The US department of justice obtained the subpoena from Judge Theresa Buchanan (at the request of the attorney general for the Eastern District of Virginia) and the document obliges Twitter to hand over information relating to WikiLeaks and Private Bradley Manning from the accounts of Julian Assange, Icelandic MP Birgitta Jonsdottir, Jacob Applebaum and Rop Gonggrijp. The New York Times reports the subpoena covers addresses, screen names, telephone numbers and credit card and bank account numbers, but does not include Twitter “Direct Messages”. The subpoena was initially secret, but subsequently made public at the request of Twitter’s lawyers. According to the Wall Street Journal, the subpoena was granted after the US justice department “provided ‘specific and articulable’ facts to show that the records were ‘relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation’.”

Jonsdottir, Applebaum and Gonggrijp are all understood to have worked with Assange on the video of the US Army Apache helicopter gunning down civilians, including two Reuters employees, leaked early last year.

US attorney general Eric Holder has confirmed an ongoing criminal investigation into WikiLeaks. The US government has never successfully prosecuted a publisher for leaking information, though government employees who leak have been jailed many times. The route taken by the justice department suggests they know that prosecuting WikiLeaks for publishing leaked information has little chance of success. Instead, the subpoena seeks information from Twitter from a few weeks before Manning allegedly started downloading information from a Pentagon network, which may help prove that Assange and others at WikiLeaks were involved in the leaking of the document. Should the prosecutors manage to prove this in court, the Second Amendment protection falls away, and WikiLeaks would then be liable as a “leaker” of information.

After Twitter contacted the four people, the WikiLeaks Twitter account published a tweet which said that they assumed Google and Facebook had been approached by the authorities for information as well. Neither company has issued a statement yet.

The news has already created something of a diplomatic row in Iceland. The US ambassador to Iceland has been summoned to explain why his country is attempting to gain access to Twitter information belonging to an elected Icelandic member of parliament. The subpoena has been slammed by Jonsdottir as well as Iceland’s minister of the interior, who said the move was very serious “when put in perspective and concerns freedom of speech and people’s freedom in general”. Further diplomatic rumblings are possible, as the only American citizens covered by the subpoena are Manning (who is already behind bars) and Applebaum. People will not have forgotten the heavy-handed foreign diplomacy of the Bush years.

Jonsdottir and Gonggrijp have both commented that they didn’t use Twitter to share sensitive information with anyone, and we sincerely believe that an organisation which sets itself up against the powers that be of this world would not be that stupid.

We struggle to see what exact benefits US authorities could gain with Twitter information. The court order purportedly seeks information about source and destination IP addresses, which, assuming nobody at WikiLeaks was smart enough to use proxy servers or an anonymous network, will allow the authorities to know which Internet service providers were used to access Twitter. They could potentially then use that to strong-arm the ISPs into giving up the individual ISPs (or at least try, there are still several hurdles they’d face), which they could then use to try to get into email accounts in services like Google’s Gmail. Again, this all assumes that WikiLeaks would be silly enough to use easy-to-breach services like Gmail.

The US justice department can’t not be aware of the strength of the current against which they’re trying to swim. Even if they manage to collect all the data they want, they’d still have to convince a jury that WikiLeaks is a leaker and not a publisher of information. If we apply Occam’s Razor to all of this, it really feels as if someone at the department of justice is under enormous pressure from Capitol Hill and the Pentagon to do something about WikiLeaks, and is dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s so that arses are covered. DM

Read more: NY Times, The Guardian, Wall Street Journal.

Photo: U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder answers questions as European Union (EU) Principal Vice President and Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship Viviane Reding looks on during a media availability after the U.S.-EU Justice and Home Affairs Ministerial meeting at the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, December 9, 2010. U.S. authorities are looking into cyber-attacks on companies like and others targeted by hackers backing WikiLeaks after it published classified U.S. communications, Holder said. REUTERS/Hyungwon Kang.


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