The US government forced Google and small internet service provider, Sonic.net to turn over private information gained from email accounts of 28-year old US citizen and Wikileaks volunteer Jacob Applebaum, the Wall Street Journal reports.
According to Sonic, which attempted to fight the court order but found it prohibitively expensive, the government wanted the email addresses of people who had been in correspondence with Applebaum.
The information was obtained through the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), a law passed in 1986 which never envisaged that one day mail would be stored electronically.
According to Digital Due Process, a coalition of tech giants including the likes of Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and AOL, looking to the modernisation of the ECPA, the law when passed in 1986 was a “forward-looking statute.”
As time has passed, however, and technology progressed,the law remained static, resulting in a situation in which “the ECPA can no longer be applied in a clear and consistent way, and consequently, the vast amount of personal information generated by today’s digital communication services may no longer be adequately protected”.
There are a number of reasons why the ECPA as it stands, angers privacy advocates.
To gain access to traditional private data such as medical records, private phone calls, and “snail-mail,” law enforcement officials have to show probable cause a crime has been committed to gain access to that information.
However, following a number of precedents set by court rulings which have applied the now archaic ECPA to modern technologies, law enforcement officials can now gain access to digital data which in the eyes of most common people is private, such as emails, cellphone-location records, without getting a search warrant or showing probable cause that a crime has been committed. All law officials have to prove to gain access to this data is prove that they have “reasonable grounds” that the records would be “relevant and material” to an investigation.
As the WSJ explains, “As a result, it can be easier for law-enforcement officers to see a person’s email information than it is to see their postal mail”.
Another reason the ECPA is so egregious in the eyes of privacy advocates is that whereas when law enforcement officials would be searching “traditional” private data, a search warrant would be issued to the searched person, an order obtained through the ECPA is often sealed. What this means is that quite often a person whose data is accessed through the ECPA never knows of this.
The WSJ quotes “people familiar with the case” as saying that both Google and Sonic fought to be allowed to be informed Applebaum his information was being accessed. Applebaum according to reports has not been charged with any criminal activities.
Wikileaks, through a series of spectacular scoops, — particularly the Afghan War Diary, the Iraq War Logs, the Guantamo Files, the Palestine Papers and Cablegate — has lifted the lid on the often opaque and secretive world of international politics. These releases have raised the ire of many governments across the world, particularly the US which was greatly embarrassed by the Cablegate releases. Following the Cablegate releases, US Attorney General Eric Holder said the US was pursuing an “active criminal investigation” of WikiLeaks.