Google Defends Delay in Alerting WikiLeaks of Email Search Warrants

A company lawyer said Google was bound by gag orders imposed by the court that issued the search warrants for the email accounts.

Google and WikiLeaks search

An attorney for Google on Wednesday defended the company's apparent delay in informing three WikiLeaks members about giving the government access to their email accounts nearly three years ago in response to secret court orders.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Google attorney Albert Gidari claimed the company was unable to notify the three individuals earlier because of a gag order imposed on it by the court that issued the search warrants for the email accounts.

Google had fought the March 2012 gag orders like it has been fighting all secret search warrants and gag orders pertaining to WikiLeaks since at least January 2011, Gidari said. It was able to inform affected customers only after those gag orders were partially lifted late last year, The Post reported Gidari as saying. However, the actual details on the information sought by the government via the search warrants is still sealed and Google is not at liberty to talk about them, he said.

Gidari was responding to the sharp criticism of Google's handling of the disclosures by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), the non-profit advocacy group representing Sarah Harrison, Kristinn Hrafnsson and Joseph Farrell, the three WikiLeaks members whose emails were seized.

In a letter addressed to Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and its general counsel, attorneys from CCR said Google had notified the three individuals about the government orders only on Dec. 23, 2014.

"We are astonished and disturbed that Google waited over two and a half years to notify its subscribers that a search warrant was issued for their records," the letter said. It noted how Twitter had successfully resisted similar court-issued gag orders when the government sought access to account information belonging to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and other members of the organization.

The letter castigated Google for even now not informing the three individuals about what exactly the company had turned over to the government in response to the search warrants. Had they been aware of what was going on, they could have "intervened and protected their rights to privacy, association and freedom from illegal searches," the letter said.

Google did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

The concerns expressed in recent days by WikiLeaks over the data disclosure has once again focused attention on an issue that Google, like other major U.S. Internet companies, has been trying to desperately put behind it for the past 18 months. Edward Snowden's leaks raised a lot of questions about the role Internet companies played in providing private customer data to the National Security Agency (NSA) and other intelligence agencies.

Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo and others have maintained that in recent years they were compelled to release customer data to the NSA, FBI and other government agencies under secret counter-terrorism-related court warrants and gag orders. While, some, like Twitter, have resisted publicly, others like Google claim they have been fighting the orders privately for quiet some time. One case, involving Microsoft's refusal to provide the government with access to an email account stored on a server in Dublin, Ireland, appears headed for the U.S. Supreme Court.

American technology companies, like Google and Microsoft, have a lot at stake over the issue. Snowden's revelations have made some companies, especially in Europe and parts of Asia, uncomfortable about using American cloud hosting services and other technology firms. So far, at least, initial estimates that U.S. companies could lose tens of billions of dollars over such concerns appear to be off base. But broad concerns remain among overseas firms about government access to customer data held by American cloud hosting companies.

In an attempt to quell such concerns, Google and others have demanded that they be allowed to publicly disclose at least aggregate data on the government requests they receive each year for customer data. Google's Transparency Report is one example of how the company and other Internet firms have been trying to communicate more details of government requests for customer data.

Jaikumar Vijayan

Jaikumar Vijayan

Vijayan is an award-winning independent journalist and tech content creation specialist covering data security and privacy, business intelligence, big data and data analytics.