US gov't defeats Google in online privacy test case

June 28, 2015
Jacob Appelbaum.

Newly released court documents show the US government won a series of court challenges that led to Google having to turn over one years worth of data of user Jacob Appelbaum.

Appelbaum is a WikiLeaks volunteer and a developer for Tor, a free browser and an open network to protect online privacy. He was being targeted by the US Justice Department as part of their criminal investigation into WikiLeaks.

The Intercept website broke the story on June 20. It published the recently unsealed court documents that detail the three-month court dispute with Google from 2011 and the arguments used by the Justice Department to gain access to Appelbaum's data.

It showed how the US Justice Department sought to quell public backlash around its actions through concealment.

The Intercept said: “Government investigators demanded metadata records from the account showing email addresses of those with whom Appelbaum had corresponded between the period of November 2009 and early 2011; they also wanted to obtain information showing the unique IP addresses of the computers he had used to log in to the account.

“The Justice Department's case hinged on that Appelbaum had 'no reasonable expectation of privacy' over his email records under the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.

“Rather than seeking a search warrant that would require it to show probable cause that he had committed a crime, the government instead sought and received an order to obtain the data under a lesser standard, requiring only 'reasonable grounds' to believe that the records were 'relevant and material' to an ongoing criminal investigation.

“Google repeatedly attempted to challenge the demand, and wanted to immediately notify Appelbaum that his records were being sought so he could have an opportunity to launch his own legal defense.

“Attorneys for the tech giant argued in a series of court filings that the government’s case raised 'serious First Amendment concerns.' They noted that Appelbaum’s records 'may implicate journalistic and academic freedom' because they could 'reveal confidential sources or information about WikiLeaks’ purported journalistic or academic activities.'”

Ultimately these arguments were unsuccessful. Google was forced to hand over the data and were gagged from informing Appelbaum or anyone else about the data handover. It was only when the court documents were unsealed earlier this year that all of this was able to be revealed.

While this particular case targeted Google, there is no reason to believe it could not be applied to any other site the US government wishes to target for investigation. That this can be done without even needing to show probable cause is very concerning for online privacy.

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