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Justice's Subpoena to Twitter: Desperate Gesture?

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By Dawn Lim January 11, 2011

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News that the Justice Department demanded Twitter hand over account details of WikiLeaks' supporters went viral last Friday, prompting angry outcry around the Internet. The subpoena brings the mounting criminal investigation of the whistleblowing organization into the spotlight. The backlash the subpoena has triggered -- and the awkward position in which it puts Justice -- could outweigh the intelligence value of the data that would be obtained.

Those named in the subpoena include Birgitta Jonsdottir, an Icelandic Member of Parliament behind legislative efforts to push for greater whistleblower protection laws; Rop Gonggrijp, a Dutch hacker who admitted his involvement in the release of classified footage of a U.S. military helicopter attack in Iraq (Gonggrijp's name was mispelled in the subpoena); and, according to the interpretation of the document by Mark Stephens, the lawyer for WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange, all of WikiLeaks' Twitter followers.

The demand for the account information of WikiLeaks' over-600,000 followers is "grossly overbroad," Stephens told Bloomberg adding, "they're shaking the tree to see if anything drops out."

The only two Americans identified in the subpoena were Bradley Manning, who is being detained for leaking thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks, and Jacob Appelbaum, a developer for Tor, software that obfuscates Internet traffic. Justice has called for private messaging content, affiliated e-mail, physical or IP addresses and credit card information associated with the subpoenaed accounts.

What makes Justice's subpoena to Twitter particularly naive is that the site operates as a microblogging platform, and is only secondarily a direct messaging service. Because of the 140 character limit, Twitter is an unlikely vessel for the business of leaking.

"Basically all Twitter will have is their tweets, which are already public, and info about what IP address they connected from. There is a chance there could be private messages also but that seems unlikely given the people involved," according to Nicholas Merrill, the first person to fight a National Security Letter from the FBI requesting personal information about clients of his online start-up in 2004. Merrill, in an e-mail, also questioned the scale of Justice's inquiry: "Twitter users don't pay Twitter so why did they ask for credit card and billing information?"

The unwieldy connections between Twitter accounts could surround federal agents with more white noise than they need, said another source familiar with the workings of federal law enforcement. While intelligence officials might argue that every piece adds to the puzzle, too much information sometimes only complicates the picture.

That WikiLeaks' 640,000 followers think they are targets of this subpoena puts Justice in a public relations soup it didn't anticipate. The original subpoena, issued Dec. 14, was a sealed order. Once Twitter successfully contested the secrecy of that order, obtaining the right to alert those mentioned in the subpoena, the story blew up. Wired lauded Twitter's response as "the industry standard," praising it for having "beta-tested a spine." WikiLeaks was prompted to call for Google and Facebook to unseal any subpoenas they may have received. This defiant tide puts Justice in the uncomfortable position of having to deal with public backlash while caving in to political and military pressure to come down hard on WikiLeaks.

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