Google and Sonic.net, a small Internet service provider, have been forced to hand a WikiLeaks volunteer’s email information to the U.S. government under a secret and controversial court order. The type of information released includes login IPs of the volunteer and those with whom he communicated by email, as well as their email addresses.
Sonic fought the order, dated January 4, 2011, but lost. Chief executive Dane Jasper told the Wall Street Journal that although the legal battle was expensive, “... it was the right thing to do.” It is unclear whether Google fought the order or willingly complied.
The court order pertained to the emails of WikiLeaks volunteer Jacob Appelbaum (pictured at right) and span a period back to November 1, 2009. Google was ordered to produce the login IP addresses Applebaum used each time he signed in to his email account, as well as the email addresses and IP addresses of everyone he corresponded with during that time.
The law under which this questionable seizure of private communications is permitted is called the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. It dates back to 1986, three years before the World Wide Web was born. Google and Microsoft are both members of a coalition fighting for reform, as this law allows law enforcement easier access to emails than postal mail. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has previously warned U.S. citizens that their Facebook, Yahoo, and Google account information is quite accessible to U.S. government officials.
In fact, law enforcement officials don’t even need a search warrant to access private emails. While a search warrant would require they show probable cause that a crime has been committed, they must only demonstrate that they have “reasonable grounds” to believe the email records could be “relevant and material” to an investigation under the ECPA.
Another controversial element of this type of email seizure is that the person isn’t notified that their email has been searched. Google and Sonic both lobbied, in this case, to be allowed to notify Appelbaum of the seizure. Under the 1986 law, however, they are prohibited from doing so. This type of court order is usually sealed.
In the final six months of 2010, Google received 4,601 requests for data as a result of search warrants, subpoenas, and searches justified by the ECPA; they complied with 94 percent of the requests, according to the Google Transparency Report website.
So just who is Jacob Appelbaum? As a developer with Massachusetts-based Tor Project Inc., he provided free tools to help people protect their anonymity online, particularly when submitting documents to the WikiLeaks website. He was also a WikiLeaks volunteer, a fact that became public in April 2010 when he was identified in a blog post for the Committee to Protect Journalists after speaking to reporter Danny O’Brien. Appelbaum reportedly believed his anonymity would be protected and has since become a public WikiLeaks advocate.
Here’s the kicker: the U.S. government provides funding to Tor Project Inc., whose tools are used often in countries that monitor their citizens’ email and online activity. So while assisting in the preservation of privacy rights on the one hand, they violate them with the other under a law created before the World Wide Web existed.
What do you think of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act? Should courts require that law enforcement show probable cause that a crime has been committed and issue a warrant before email accounts can be searched and seized? Let us know what you think in the comments.