RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – A federal appeals court ruled Friday that prosecutors can demand Twitter account information of certain users in their criminal probe into the disclosure of classified documents on WikiLeaks.
The three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also said the government’s reasons as to why it is seeking the information can remain sealed.
The case involves three Twitter account holders with some connection to the secret-busting WikiLeaks website. They had argued that forcing Twitter to cooperate with the investigation by turning over data amounts to an invasion of privacy and has a chilling effect on the free speech rights of Twitter users.
The federal panel in Richmond rejected their appeal and affirmed a magistrate’s court order that Twitter must turn over limited account information to prosecutors. The court said it weighed the right of public access against the need to keep an investigation secret. The appeals court agreed with the magistrate that the government’s interest in keeping the documents secret outweigh the right to public access.
Prosecutors have said federal law specifically allows them to seek account information as a routine investigative tool. Specifically, the Stored Communications Act allows them to obtain certain electronic data without a search warrant or a demonstration of probable cause. The government must only show that it has a reasonable belief that the records it seeks are relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation.
“This is essentially a reasonable suspicion standard,” the court wrote.
Under the Stored Communications Act, the government can also keep sealed documents related to their investigation from the subscribers. The appeals panel concluded the subscribers had no First Amendment right to access the documents. Prosecutors submitted their rationale for seeking the Twitter information to U.S. Magistrate Judge Theresa Carroll Buchanan but it was kept secret and sealed also.
The court wrote that the “government’s interests in maintaining secrecy of its investigation, preventing potential subjects from being tipped off, or altering behavior to thwart the government’s ongoing investigation, outweighed” the subscribers’ claims.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, representing the Twitter users, said the government can use those IP addresses as a sort of virtual tracking device to identify a specific computer used by an account holder and with it the user’s physical location.
The appeals panel also allows the government to keep secret any similar orders it sought from other social media sites.
“This case shows just how easy it is for the government to obtain information about what people are doing on the Internet, and it highlights the need for our electronic privacy laws to catch up with technology,” said ACLU attorney Aden Fine. “The government should not be able to get private information like this without getting a warrant and also satisfying the standard required by the First Amendment, and it shouldn’t be able to do so in secret except in unusual circumstances”
The original order issued in December 2010 at prosecutors’ request also sought Twitter account information from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Pfc. Bradley Manning, who faces life in prison if he’s convicted of indirectly aiding the enemy by leaking U.S. secrets while working as an intelligence analyst in Baghdad in 2009 and 2010.
Neither Assange nor Manning was a party in the lawsuit challenging the legality of the Twitter order.
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
- 2016 college football rivalry games you simply can't miss
- New treatment offers hope for migraine sufferers
- 11 stadiums to watch your favorite football team
- Shopping for a TV? Best models for 2016
- The new beer pairing guide for holiday foods
- Avoid this holiday plumbing disaster in your home
- 7 tips to avoid holiday weight gain
- New treatments mean better prostate cancer survival rates
- 5 of the scariest things found in drains
- 6 tips to create the best family movie night
- New bone marrow procedure holds promise for healing pain
- The best places to celebrate Fall in Phoenix
- Infamous athletes who did the most time for their crimes
- Diet, exercise and aspirin: 3 tools to fight colon cancer
- 2016 baseball highlights, bloopers and blunders
- See how CFOs really feel about business in the Valley
- The best television shows on the internet
- The 5 worst things you could do for your roof
- 6 coolest things brewing in Arizona
- The virus that keeps head and neck cancers on the rise
- State Fair ‘Kid Reporter’ has all the angles covered
- 4 important things to know about timeshare maintenance fees
- Signs of delayed car crash injuries
- The truth about sports concussions
- The Alzheimer's epidemic: Facts you need to know
- The season is here, keep your Fantasy Football team strong all season
- 8 TV shows you can't miss this fall
- Football is here: 6 tips to make this your best season ever
- Gameday recipes and beers to match
- 6 reasons the Cardinals are driven to win the Super Bowl