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Wikileaks volunteer fights U.S. gov’t in court, Diaspora co-founder dies

A former WikiLeaks volunteer has vowed to resist a U.S. court’s decision to open her Twitter account to U.S. authorities by taking her case to the Council of Europe, reports said.

Birgitta Jonsdottir, an Icelandic member of parliament, was devastated when a U.S. Federal Court in Virginia ruled that Twitter must grant the Justice Department access to private data (which includes IP addresses, session times and relationships between other Twitter users) taken from the accounts of Jonsdottir, Jacob Appelbaum and Rop Gonggrijp.

Appelbaum, an American, is a computer developer for a non-profit organization that provides free tools for maintaining anonymity online while Gonggrijp is a Dutch hacker. Appelbaum’s name has achieved publicity when his G-mail data was delivered by Google to the U.S. government when WikiLeaks and its supporters were being investigated. The order also targeted records of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

In January this year, Jonsdottir discovered her Twitter account was a subject of investigation by the Department of Justice in connection to a WikiLeaks’ video release of a U.S. military helicopter shooting two Reuters reporters in Iraq. She maintained that U.S. authorities want to use her information in a case against Assange.

Initially, Twitter fought requests to deliver user data without first notifying them. Free speech advocates alarmingly pointed out that the inquiries’ targets might never have known they were being investigated had Twitter not been vocal against the subpoenas.

Defending the decision, Judge Liam O’Grady on Nov. 10, Thursday stated that the three “voluntarily chose to use Internet technology to communicate with Twitter and thereby consented to whatever disclosures would be necessary to complete their communications.” He also denied the petition to unseal the parts of the government’s secret requests to Twitter and other service providers.

Many saw the ruling as a deathblow to online privacy. Jonsdottir believes that the decision to allow appropriation of private user data by the government without a warrant sets a dangerous precedence for all,  whether private citizens or politicians in any country.

“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.

Jonsdottir was also quoted as saying “With this decision, the court is telling all users of online tools hosted in the U.S. that the U.S. government will have secret access to their data.”

Prior to this decision, the WikiLeaks associates have still not been charged with wrongdoing. No extradition has been filed against them either.

In October, the Inter-Parliamentary Union unanimously adopted a resolution condemning the move by the Justice Department. The IPU said this threatened free speech and suggested it could violate Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which advocates the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

In a statement, it said: “Members of parliament are elected by people to represent them in parliament. In their daily work they legislate and they hold the governments to account. They are unable to perform these duties if they cannot receive and exchange information freely without fear of intimidation.” The IPU represents members of parliament from 157 countries.

Meanwhile, in an event that may set the tongues of conspiracy theorists wagging, Ilya Zhitomirskiy, the 22-year-old co-founder of Diaspora has died under mysterious circumstances during the weekend, reports said.

Diaspora is a privacy-themed online social network, which was launched last year as a more private alternative to Facebook. Zhitomirskiy and three other students at New York University built the website as a “privacy aware, personally controlled, do-it-all, open source social network.” Diaspora opened to software developers in September 2010 and a version of the online network went public after two months. Strangely, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg was reported as one of the site’s financial backers.

The cause of death is thought to be suicide, but reports said the coroner’s office said it will take several weeks to confirm this.

That there are millions (especially in the Philippines) of people around the world who jump at the chance to join these sites and upload and share all imaginable details of their private lives – both negligible and significant – shows that very few consider the security issues of revealing so much intimate detail, or are reading, let alone understanding, the fine print in the terms of service. Case in point: the Philippines ranks 6th in the world as having the most number of users on Facebook.

Those who are not guilty of wrongdoing have nothing to fear. But when governments start acquiring user data without a warrant and targeting citizens for their political opinions, then the future starts to look bleak.