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WikiLeaks lawyer dubs US subpoena on Twitter 'harassment'

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US prosecutor demands that Twitter hand over data about WikiLeaks and a raft of supporters amounts to harassment, a lawyer for the whistle-blower website says.

The claim comes amid revelations of documents the US Department of Justice secretly filed in federal court seeking detailed information associated with the accounts of WikiLeaks and several of its supporters, including Icelandic Member of Parliament Birgitta Jónsdóttir, founder Julian Assange, and Rop Gonggrijp and Jacob Appelbaum, who are hackers who have worked with Assange in the past. Pfc. Bradley Manning, the US Army intelligence analyst suspected of supplying WikiLeaks with classified government documents was also targeted.

Mark Stephens, an attorney representing the secret-spilling website, told journalists over the weekend that the demands violate the US Constitution's guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures and amounts to a shake down.

“The Department of Justice is turning into an agent of harassment rather than an agent of law,” Stephens told Bloomberg News. “They're shaking the tree to see if anything drops out, but more important they are shaking down people who are supporters of WikiLeaks.”

Stephens went on to tell Bloomberg that similar information was sought from Google, Facebook and eBay's Skype division. Those companies have yet to confirm or deny that claim.

The government's dragnet might never have come to light were it not for the actions of Twitter, which under the national security letters filed on December 14 in US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia was forbidden from notifying its subscribers that their information was being demanded. Lawyers for the micro-blogging filed a motion to unseal the court order and won last week.

The company easily could have complied with the order and faced “zero” liability for doing so, said Christopher Soghoian, a Ph.D. candidate in Indiana University's School of Informatics and Computing, where he is researching data security and privacy, cyber law.

“It is wonderful to see companies taking a strong stance, and fighting for their users' privacy,” he blogged. “I am sure that this will pay long term PR dividends to Twitter, and is a refreshing change, compared to the actions by some other major telecommunications and internet application providers, who often bend over backwards to help law enforcement agencies.”

He went on to highlight comments made a few years ago by eBay's director of compliance boasting that the online auction house “has probably the most generous policy of any internet company when it comes to sharing information.” The site doesn't require a subpoena “except for very limited circumstances,” the official went on to say.

Meanwhile Iceland's Foreign Ministry has summoned the US Ambassador to Reykjavik to explain why investigators are dredging up the online activity of an Icelandic lawmaker. It's not clear when the meeting will take place.

Stephens, the WikiLeaks attorney, said government investigators are using the data demands to learn as much as they can about the comings and goings of the targets, as well as their relationship to each other.

“What they will then do is take that data and analyze it in conjunction with data they get from Google, Facebook and the other social media, so that they can ascertain individuals that they feel they want to pay more attention to,” he told Bloomberg. ®

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