Does the US government have the right to read you Twitter messages? Of course not, would be most people's reaction. Unfortunately, thanks to a US district court ruling made on November 10, the US government can now compel Twitter to release information that most people would deem private, such as your IP address, the content of your direct messages and your session times and activities, according to OWNI.
Why is this acceptable? The reason, the judge explained, was because in agreeing with the terms of service, Twitter users "voluntarily relinquished any reasonable expectation of privacy".
Twitter attempted to fight the ruling over a protracted year-long appeal process. However, losing the case has created a potentially dangerous precedent: the ruling could mean that any website with servers in the US could be asked to hand the data held on those servers to the government, without the need to obtain a warrant.
The US Government has obtained information from Twitter previously via Department of Justice requests, notably in 2010 when it obtained information about Wikileaks and its members and supporters, including Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and supporters Jacob Appelbaum, a Tor developer, Birgitta Jónsdóttir, an Icelandic MP and Bradley Manning, a US Army Private First Class who is accused of leaking military intelligence - including the infamous collateral murder video - to the whistle-blowing organization.
The US Department of Justice was able to make this request based on a clause in the Stored Communications Act of 1986, which allows stored electronic communications information to be obtained without a warrant. This new ruling reinforces this idea that personal data should be easily accessible to the government and it adds to the increasing amount of legal support that would allow branches of the state to access information that many would argue should be private.
Then there arises the question - why does Twitter store all this data? Should it not delete the details of its users actions in order to better protect their privacy? If they do continue to store data, should they move their data storage out of the US to a country with stronger privacy laws? The judge founded his ruling in part on the agreement accepted by all Twitter users when they create an account, which prompts the question: should Twitter revise its terms of service so that users can, in fact, have "reasonable expectation of privacy"?
To most people, the information held about them on twitter may seem trivial - who on earth would want to know what song I was raving about on May 14 2009? However, according to OWNI, in the case of Wikileaks supporters and activists, it was used to amass information in order to attempt to bring a legal case against the organization and Julian Assange.
There is no one outside the US government who can categorically state how useful information obtained from Twitter was in collecting evidence against Wikileaks supporters. However, it seems evident that the US government is intent on utilising the law and its political influence to the utmost of its ability in order to stop leaks of a similar a nature occurring again.
The blockade on payments to Wikleaks in response to US governmental pressure has cut off the donations that are the lifeblood of the organisation. Bradley Manning is due to receive a military pre-trial hearing, known in the US as an Article 32 proceeding, on December 16, 569 days after his arrest and subsequent detainment on a military brig in Kuwait.
Whether you agree or not with ethics behind Wikileaks, it is simply a case in point: is it right that a website should be legally compelled to release personal data as evidence to help build a legal case, without a warrant? With the possibility of the Stop Online Piracy Act becoming US law in the near future and thereby providing the government with the right to permanently shut down websites and search engines that in their view fail to sufficiently prevent piracy, the American legal system's attitude towards state interference with the internet is becoming an ever more pertinent issue.