The case in question involves the Justice Department's repeated attempts to get personal account data from three WikiLeaks supporters, in order to bolster its espionage case against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for the release of diplomatic cables last year that were stolen (allegedly) by Army intelligence agent and whistleblower Bradley Manning. The three who were targeted are Icelandic MP Birgitta Jonsdottir - an early supporter of WikiLeaks who helped produce the Collateral Murder video that showed a U.S. military attack on civilians in Iraq - as well as computer-security expert Jacob Appelbaum and Dutch hacker Rop Gonggrijp.
Personal info released without the need for a warrant
The decision released on Thursday was the result of an appeal by the three targets of the Justice Department's case, after another judge earlier this year upheld the order compelling Twitter to release the information. What's particularly disturbing about this case is that the government didn't even have to file for a traditional warrant to get access to the personal data from Jonsdottir and the others - it used a special order called a 2703(d), and its attempt to get that information might never have even come to light if Twitter hadn't fought the order and won the right to alert Jonsdottir, Appelbaum and Gonggrijp.
You are sharing publicly whether you know it or not
What is the rationale behind this request for information from the U.S. government? We don't know, and the judge in this case decided that the three targets of the court order didn't have a right to know either, since he declined to force the Justice Department to reveal the purpose of its request. All we know is that the government wanted personal data about their activity on Twitter - including their IP addresses, any "contact information" related to the account, as well as "records of session times and durations," and could even include the content of individual messages (including private messages). And it did this despite the fact that none of them have been charged with any kind of criminal offence in the U.S., and neither have WikiLeaks or Julian Assange.
As Soghoian has pointed out, most social networks and web services such as Twitter, Google+ and Facebook - and particularly the latter - are focused on getting their users to share more of their information, because doing this enhances the value of the network (and makes it more valuable to advertisers and marketers). Google has said that it wants to make its new network part of everything it does, and connect it to everything that its users do on any Google service as a kind of central "identity platform." Based on the decision in the Twitter case, any and all of that information could theoretically be available to someone, including the government.
That's a pretty dangerous precedent, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (which is representing Jonsdottir in the case, along with the American Civil Liberties Union) notes in its response to the Twitter decision, saying it is "gravely worried by the court's conclusion that records about you that are collected by Internet services like Twitter, Facebook, Skype and Google are fair game for warrantless searches by the government." And it's a clear warning to anyone who joins a web service that their actions are effectively public.