A U.S. Federal Court in Virginia caused quite a stir among digital privacy advocates last week when it ordered Twitter to grant the Justice Department access to private data from the accounts of three suspected WikiLeaks supporters. That data includes IP addresses, session times and relationships between other Twitter users.

Normally, requests for this type of information are not particularly controversial, but in this case a warrant was not required and the subjects of the data inquiries have not yet been charged with any crimes. The government is able to make such warrantless requests thanks to a 1994 law known as the Stored Communications Act.

It's that lack of a need for the government to obtain a warrant that most troubles privacy advocates, given that the right to privacy was a bedrock principle in the founding of the United States and the ratification of its Constitution.

"We are gravely worried by the court's conclusion that records about you that are collected by Internet services like Twitter, Facebook, Skype and Google are fair game for warrantless searches by the government," said Electronic Frontier Foundation Legal Director Cindy Cohn.

If the name of Jacob Appelbaum sounds familiar, it's because he's the Tor developer whose Gmail data was handed over by Google to the U.S. government as part of the latter's ongoing investigation into WikiLeaks and its supporters. Initially, Twitter had resisted requests to hand over its users' data without notifying them. With this ruling, the government essentially tells technology companies that if the government comes asking for information about its users, they'd better give it up, warrant or not.

A Slippery Slope For Online Privacy?

As the W3C and tech companies continue to hammer out consumer privacy standards for things like browser-based user tracking, it appears that the real battleground for online privacy isn't between companies and consumers, but rather at the point at which governments start demanding user data without a warrant.

The reason so many privacy advocates object to what Google and Twitter are doing isn't so much out of sympathy for WikiLeaks, but rather because of the precedent that these rulings set.

The U.S. government is seeking information about WikiLeaks and supporters of the organization as part of an effort to build a legal case against it. Individuals like Appelbaum and Icelandic parliamentarian Birgitta Jonsdottir may appear to be logical targets in the quest for that information, but many wonder where the government's right to access private data without a warrant begins and ends.

Collaboration, Support and Sympathy: Where Are the Lines?

In the case of WikiLeaks, the line between providing material support to the organization and simply being sympathetic to its goals can be very thin. Helping Julian Assange store or release classified diplomatic cables is one thing. What about donating money to WikiLeaks? Writing something sympathetic? What about the news organizations who have partnered with WikiLeaks to release information?

Some may counter that such an argument approaches logical fallacy. Yet students of U.S. history need look no further than the 1960s and 1970s for examples of law enforcement investigating and tracking citizens based on their political sentiments.

Certainly, much as changed since then, both politically and technologically. Perhaps most significantly, we are now generating and storing more data about our lives, relationships and intentions than at any point in human history, and we're doing so largely on server farms owned and operated by people other than ourselves.

As the ruling judge himself wrote, users of online services have "a lessened expectation of privacy" when they agree to the terms of service for sites like Twitter and Facebook. That may or may not have been the understanding of the millions of users who have clicked that "OK" button, but it's certainly good to know.

Photo of Jacob Appelbaum by Threat to Democracy