US government continues to target WikiLeaks volunteer
According to a newspaper report, US ISP Sonic.net has been forced to supply the US government with information on the email account of Wikileaks volunteer Jacob Appelbaum. According to a report published on Monday in the Wall Street Journal, the company was complying with a secret court order. Google was issued with a similar order, but it is not clear whether it has been acted upon. Google has not commented on the matter. The government requested details including the email addresses of people with whom Appelbaum had corresponded, but not the actual content of emails.
Appelbaum is a security specialist, hacker and a core member of the Tor project. He has repeatedly found himself targeted by US government agencies. In January 2011, the government forced Twitter to release data about a number of users with connections to WikiLeaks, including Appelbaum, Icelandic MP Birgitta Jónsdóttir and Dutch hacker Rop Gonggrijp. An appeal against this investigation, which was approved by a judge in an accelerated process, is ongoing.
According to the report, 28-year old Appelbaum, a US citizen, has not been charged with any offence. The secret court order also bars the company from informing affected customers. Sonic CEO Dane Jasper told CNET News that the ban on revealing the existence of the court order was lifted at his company's request and that it had therefore been able to notify Appelbaum of the order.
The government's action is based on a 1986 federal law on electronic communications privacy. Investigators have been able to use this law to obtain information about server-based email accounts and mobile phone location data without having to obtain a search warrant. Unlike with normal search warrants, a government agency does not have to provide specific proof to obtain a court order – it merely has to demonstrate reasonable suspicion.
The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) was passed in the pre-internet era and is considered controversial. The intention was to provide a similar level of protection against illegal access to the then developing field of electronic communications as that given to telephone and postal communications. The technology has developed enormously since then. According to the Wall Street Journal, a number of legal judgements questioning the constitutionality of the act have been handed down. A group of well-known IT companies, including Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon and eBay, has been lobbying for reform of the ECPA.
Correction: The opening paragraph has been corrected to reflect which companies have taken action.