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25th Sep 2020

US anti-Twitter subpoena fuels data privacy debate

  • Twitter won a legal battle to protect its customers from a secret US gagging order (Photo: respres)

A court order potentially giving US security services access to data on all 637,000 people who follow the WikiLeaks Twitter account has added fuel to the fire of an EU debate on data retention.

The online short-message service Twitter on Friday (7 January) announced it won a legal battle to disclose that the US has issued a court order seeking private information on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, his alleged source for the classified US documents, Bradley Manning and three of his supporters - Icelandic MP Birgitta Jonsdottir, Dutch hacker Rop Gonggrijp and US programmer Jacob Appelbaum.

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The US subpoena also requires the disclosure of "non-content information associated with any communication or file stored by or for the accounts, such as the source and the destination e-mail addresses and IP addresses." In short, this means that all the 637,000 Twitter users following the WikiLeaks account may be a potential target.

The news, which will enable the five named people to appeal the order, comes just as US foreign policy chief Hillary Clinton starts a Middle East trip she herself dubbed an "apology tour" after leaked cables revealed US-Arab intrigues against Iran.

Iceland, for one, does not think US embarrassment justifies the sweeping court injunction against WikiLeaks supporters, however.

Foreign minister Oessur Skarphedinsson has summoned the US ambassador to Reykjavik for an explanation and told Icelandic public radio RUV: "According to the documents that I have seen, an Icelandic parliamentarian is being investigated in a criminal case in the United States for no reason at all."

Ms Jonsdottir was the chief sponsor of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI) co-authored with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, aimed to make the small Atlantic island an international haven for investigative journalism and free speech. She also helped to produce a video for WikiLeaks showing a US Apache helicopter shooting civilians in Iraq in 2007.

Writing on her Twitter page Ms Jonsdottir said she has done nothing wrong and that she will be contesting the subpoena in court: "I don't blame Twitter for what is going on - they fought a brave battle for their customers in this case."

A spokeswoman for Twitter told EUobserver: "to help users protect their rights, it's our policy to notify users about law enforcement and governmental requests for their information, unless we are prevented by law from doing so."

MEPs concerned with data privacy issues on Monday said the US move proves that governments need checks and balances on access to private data.

"We need to show the US that they can't impose their rules on the whole world and that there is a real possibility for redress and appeal when such orders are issued," Green German MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht, who is in charge of formulating parliament's opinion on an over-arching data-sharing deal with the US, told EUobserver.

"This Twitter subpoena has no legal base for accessing all that data, so you can't say if it's proportionate or not. Now more than ever, the EU needs to make the case for common rules or else we could simply minimise the data transfers to the US."

Parliament last year got its first data privacy scalp when it used its new powers to block a deal on US access to EU citizens' back details, on the so-called Swift deal.

Data retention

The situation for journalists in the Netherlands and Poland is arguably worse than in the US after an EU law mandated telecommunication companies to store all data, with security services now able to snoop on phone and email information without judicial oversight.

The highly contested EU legislation is coming up for review by the European Commission in March five years after it entered into life.

Data protection activists find it scandalous that the responsible commissioner, Cecilia Malmstrom, said in December that "data retention is here to stay" despite lack of evidence on its utility: Dutch evidence on usefulness almost entirely pre-dates the EU law; Hungary gave no data at all to the EU review process; and the UK merely said security services have requested access 3 million times.

Activists who despair of repealing the legislation are focusing their energies on creating an EU-wide system of checks on government powers in the area.

"You can't forbid retention by repealing the directive. Data will still be kept by companies for billing and settling customer disputes. But it should also not be the case that a country is forced to implement it, if it is against its constitution," Katarzyna Szymielewicz from Panoptykon, a Polish NGO, told this website.

Watch the debate on EU data retention at the 27 Chaos Communication Congress in Berlin.

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