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Report: US Got Secret Order to Snoop on WikiLeaks

Feds can clandestinely obtain information from people's email and cellphones without a search warrant

WASHINGTON — The U.S. government obtained secret court orders to force Google Inc and a small Internet provider to hand over information from email accounts of a WikiLeaks volunteer, The Wall Street Journal reported Monday.

Julian Assange, founder of the WikiLeaks website, shakes the hand of a supporter as he leaves Trafalgar Square after addressing the crowd during the 'Antiwar Mass Assembly' organised by the Stop the War Coalition on October 8, 2011 in London, England. (Oli Scarff / Getty Images) The U.S. request included email addresses of people that Jacob Appelbaum, a volunteer for the campaigning website, had corresponded with in the past two years, but not the full emails, the newspaper said, citing documents it had reviewed.

Internet provider Sonic said it fought the government order legally and lost, and was forced to turn over information, the company's chief executive, Dane Jasper, told the newspaper.

The legal action was "rather expensive, but we felt it was the right thing to do," Jasper told the Journal.

Google, the world's No.1 Web-search engine, declined to comment on the matter, the Wall Street Journal said.

Washington embarrassed

WikiLeaks last year angered the U.S. government by making public tens of thousands of secret U.S. files and diplomatic cables that embarrassed Washington, as well as a classified video of a contested American military operation in Iraq.

The Google order dated Jan. 4, 2011, directed the search giant to turn over IP address from which Appelbaum logged into his Gmail.com account and the email and IP addresses of the users with whom he communicated dating back to Nov. 1, 2009.

It isn't clear whether Google fought the order or turned over documents, the Journal said.

The controversial court orders are expected to add fuel to a growing debate over a controversial law — the Electronic Communications Privacy Act — that allows the U.S. government to secretly obtain information from people's email and cellphones without a search warrant.

 

The Journal said some federal courts had raised doubts about whether this law was constitutional with a landmark ruling in December by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit that the government had breached the Fourth Amendment when it obtained 27,000 emails without a search warrant.

"The police may not storm the post office and intercept a letter, and they are likewise forbidden from using the phone system to make a clandestine recording of a telephone call —unless they get a warrant," Judge Danny Boggs wrote, according to the paper.

"It only stands to reason that, if government agents compel an [Internet service provider] to surrender the contents of a subscriber's emails, those agents have thereby conducted a Fourth Amendment search," he added.

 

This year, micro-blogging website Twitter fought a similar court order to hand over details of the accounts of several WikiLeaks supporters, including Appelbaum, as part of a criminal investigation launched by the Department of Justice into the major leaking of confidential U.S. documents.

Appelbaum is a developer for the Tor Project Inc., a nonprofit organization in Walpole, Mass., that provides free tools that help people maintain their anonymity online, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Twitter has not turned over information from the accounts of the Wikileaks supporters, the newspaper said, citing people familiar with the investigation.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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