The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, located in Richmond, Virgnia, on Friday denied an appeal by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, representing Twitter user and Icelandic parliamentarian Birgitta Jonsdottir, and two other Twitter users, to unseal court records showing exactly which Web companies the Justice Department sent orders to back in 2011 seeking the users' information as part of its investigation into the WikiLeaks Cablegate scandal. Twitter had already been ordered to hand over the plaintiffs' user information to the Justice Department back in late 2011, but there were several other orders sent out to other companies that a district court ruled could be kept sealed from the public, meaning users might never know which companies were involved or whether they delivered the information. The appeals court upheld this decision.
The ACLU, which published the decision Friday online, provided the following cautionary statement about the outcome:
“This case shows just how easy it is for the government to obtain information about what people are doing on the internet, and it highlights the need for our electronic privacy laws to catch up with technology. The government should not be able to get private information like this without getting a warrant and also satisfying the standard required by the First Amendment, and it shouldn’t be able to do so in secret except in unusual circumstances,” said Aden Fine, the ACLU attorney who argued the case before the appeals court in October. “This case offers the rare opportunity for the public to learn about the government’s increasing use of electronic surveillance. Unfortunately, today’s decision makes it easier for the government to keep its electronic surveillance activities hidden, even when there is no longer any need to keep them secret.”
Read more about the case at the ACLU.