News has emerged showing that the United States Department of Justice has obtained a court order issued by a magistrate judge in an attempt to obtain information from Twitter about several of the social networking service’s users who are involved with Wikileaks events, including Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, Jacob Appelbaum, and Iceland Parliament member Birgitta Jonsdottir. Unfortunately, the document serves to further prove that government officials have a lot to learn when it comes to computer and Internet-related issues.
Christopher Soghoian, who is a researcher, activist, blogger, and Ph.D. candidate at Indiana University, as well as a technical advisor to the Division of Privacy and Identity Protection for the Federal Trade Commission, picked apart the court order in a blog post on Sunday and outlined where the government made mistakes within it.
“The 2703(d) order misspelled the names of one of the targets, Rop Gonggrijp. It also requested credit card and bank account numbers of several Twitter users, even though Twitter is a free service and so doesn’t have such information (presumably someone at DOJ knows a little about Twitter, since the agency has 350,000 followers of its official Twitter account),” Soghoian writes.
He then goes on to point out that Tracy Doherty-McCormick, the prosecutor named in the order, has a background in child exploitation cases. Soghoian ponders why the Department of Justice did not appoint someone “more senior” to the case, as it is, “the most high-profile national security investigation of the decade”.
“It may simply be that Doherty-McCormick, through her experience in prosecuting pedophiles caught in online stings, may be the most tech savvy prosecutor in her office, and thus could have been brought in to help with the investigation on that basis alone,” he speculates. “However, the technical knowledge involved in tricking a pedophile into meeting what he believes is a 13 year-old girl isn’t quite the same as is required by someone investigating a sophisticated organization run by skilled computer security researchers.”
Soghoian also notes that Jacob Appelbaum, Rop Gonggrijp, and Julian Assange are all experts in computer security and likely would not have trusted Twitter with anything of a private nature, thus he expects little to come of the order.
US government officials demonstrated their lack of technical understanding back in August, even before the Wikileaks scandal began to draw major publicity, when Pentagon officials asked that the thousands of stolen documents already leaked be “returned” to them. Furthermore, it is shocking that the US military didn’t have safeguards in place on their computer systems to prevent personnel from copying classified information to flash drives and other external media in the first place.
Also in-question currently, is the Department of Homeland Security’s ability to discern a website that hosts pirated content from one that merely serves as a search engine.
It really appears that recent advancements in computer and internet technology have eluded many US government officials. With cyber-crimes increasing, one would think that issues of system security would be a priority to which they would be paying much closer attention. We can only hope that they soon realize there is a serious issue here so they can educate government employees to prevent these types of situations and more effectively conduct future investigations.