Gmail users got a hefty dose of reality today when it was revealed that Google may have handed over one user's private data to the U.S. government, who requested it without a search warrant.

The contacts list and IP address data of Jacob Appelbaum, a WikiLeaks volunteer and developer for Tor was given to the U.S. government after they requested it requested by the U.S. government using a secret court order enabled by a controversial 1986 law called the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, according to the Wall Street Journal. The law allows the government to demand information from ISPs not only without a warrant, but without ever notifying the user.

Sonic.net, a smaller ISP who was also asked to hand over data related Appelbaum, tried to challenge the order in court, but ultimately lost and was to give up the information. It's not known if Google resisted the request, but both companies did try to ensure that Appelbaum could at least be made aware of the data retrieval.

According to the company's own Transparency Report, Google received 4,601 user data requests from the U.S. government in the second half of 2010, and it complied with 94% of them. Those requests include warrantless inquiries as well as those accompanied by a search warrant.

Some Troubling Implications

The idea of an ISP handing over user data to governments without the aid of a search warrant has some troubling implications for privacy advocates and civil liberties proponents.

In the WikiLeaks case, the line between advocates and participants in the transfer of data can sometimes be blurry. If in its ongoing investigation into WikiLeaks the U.S. Department of Justice is free to ask Google, Twitter or Facebook for private data without users' knowledge, who's to say they can't access private information about people who have merely expressed sympathy for the organization?

Tech companies haven't necessarily rolled over and played dead on the issue. When the DoJ made a similar WikiLeaks-related request of Twitter in December, the company succeeded in having the order unsealed, meaning it was able to notify users about the request.

Google is among a number of tech companies that are asking Congress to rethink the law in light of the unexpected ways in which the Web has evolved in the last several years.

UPDATE: The original version of this story stated conclusively that Google had in fact handed over the requested information. That is not necessarily accurate. While Sonic is confirmed to have handed over data in this case, it is not clear whether Google actually produced the requested information or challenged the order. We regret any confusion the original wording may have caused.