The U.S. government forced Google and the Internet provider Sonic to reveal WikiLeaks-related information, raising questions on the legality of collecting data in cell phones and email without a warrant.
A secret court order mandates Google and Sonic reveal WikiLeaks volunteer Jacob Applebaum’s Gmail contact list from the last two years.
Both Google and Sonic protested the orders, asking for permission to inform Appelbaum that his emails are under government scrutiny. The request has precedent since last year Twitter won the right to tell WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange that the government wanted his personal account information.
Appelbaum, however, is not similarly charged with wrongdoing, calling into question whether the U.S government should secretly gather Internet and mobile data without a warrant to use against suspects in court cases.
Some judges and lawmakers say the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which permits court orders to collect personal online and mobile information without notifying the suspect, violates the Fourth Amendment right to protection from unreasonable searches and seizures, and debate continues to mount in courts over the question.
A judge in New York’s Eastern District, for example, called such cell phone tracking “Orwellian” and asked the government to address Fourth Amendment discrepancies in the ECPA. Also, a Maryland district judge recently refused to issue a warrant so police could track a suspect using his cell phone location.
Michigan state police, however, are currently permitted to search geolocation data as well as confiscate and search mobile phones. The Department of Justice is under pressure to reveal which cases were decided based on evidence gathered from cell phones, but has not yet decided to so do.
Digital Due Process, a coalition including Apple, eBay and Comcast, as well as the ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation, are among those calling for the DoJ, police and other governmental organizations to reveal their digital information collection practices.
They demand the ECPA better reflect the reality of the information age, arguing police cannot clandestinely intercept letters or telephone calls without a warrant, and concludes this policy should extend to online and mobile communications as well.
Applebaum’s case suggests the ongoing debate on governmental digital information collection is likely to continue as computer and mobile phone use increases. The more private data people continue to store on electronic devices, the more the government may need to walk a fine line between mining that information and protecting civil liberties.
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