Google Handed Journalists' Private Emails To The FBI - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Google Handed Journalists’ Private Emails To The FBI

Published January 26, 2015

As recently disclosed and widely reported, journalist and Wikileaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson is one of the three staff members at Wikileaks, whose email communication Google handed over to the US’ FBI in March 2012, without informing those targeted until Christmas Eve 2014. The search warrant was issued by a federal judge, at the request of a prosecutor, along with a gag order. The other targeted members of Wikileaks’s staff, according to the disclosed materials, are Sarah Harrison and Joseph Farrell.

According to Wikileaks investigations editor, Sarah Harrison, interviewed by Deutsche Welle, the information sought and acquired by the CIA consisted of all emails, “including deleted emails”, contact lists, IP addresses that the staff members had logged on from and potentially more. Harrison and Kristinn Hrafnsson have both revealed that these were personal email accounts “that we had before joining Wikileaks,” whereas their work-related communication went through different channels.

Interviewed by Vísir, Kristinn said that the mean years’ worth of emails on his account should not jeopardise anyone. “However,” he added, “they nonetheless include sensitive information. There is information about my private life, my communication with family and friends and so on. And, yes, quite a lot of communication with journalists.”

Harrison says that “what was most upsetting … was that this was my personal account that I had had years ago. We are talking about personal email correspondence with family and friends. This really brings home the violation of privacy in a very real way.” Speaking with The Guardian, Harrison added that: “knowing that the FBI read the words I wrote to console my mother over a death in the family makes me feel sick.” She says that the warrant has not, however, affected their work much, which they conduct “in a very secure manner anyway.”

The prosecutor’s reasoning for the warrant remains, by and large, secret. Part of the warrant has been revealed to the targeted staff members, citing espionage, conspiracy to commit espionage and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act as reasoning. “I cannot interpret this in any other way than the US prosecutor presuming to have reasonable cause to suspect me of espionage, conspiracy and theft of US government properties, and the judge then accepting that line of reasoning. As a journalist, I have a hard time accepting this as a normal process in a democratic state, where people have any sort of minimum respect for the work of journalists.”

Comparing the disclosure with Twitter’s earlier cooperation with the CIA, revealed in 2011, Harrison says that Twitter “actually fought the gag order! And they were actually successful in doing so,” whereas no indication has come up that Google tried to oppose the CIA’s demand. Nor did Google disclose its action, as stated above, until they were authorised to do so, almost three years after the act. Among those targeted by Twitter was member of Alþingi, Birgitta Jónsdóttir. Twitter’s effort to reveal the conduct to the MP made it possible for Birgitta to mount a legal campaign against it. In July 2012, an appeals court ruled against Birgitta.

According to Sarah Harrison, Wikileaks and/or its targeted staff members foresee taking legal measure in response to the revelation. According to ZDNet, Wikileaks has already written to Google chairman Erich Schmidt and to the US Department of Justice to complain about Google having turned over their information. Wikileaks states that “the ‘take everything’ warrants are unconstitutionally broad and appear to violate the Privacy Protection Act”.

According to The Guardian, the US government is believed to have launched a criminal investigation into Wikileaks in 2010, after the latter revealed a vast amount of classified documents, including a video of a US Apache helicopter attacking and killing civilians in Baghdad.

The Guardian notes that in the first six months of 2014, Google received close to 32,000 data requests from governments.

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