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The recent court order received by a social networking site requiring the disclosure of personal data of four of its customers has raised the alarm amongst social network users who find themselves without protection for personal data stored in the US.

Twitter, Facebook, Gmail, Yahoo and Microsoft are companies based in the US and because they “warehouse” their customer’s personal data in that country they are subject to the laws of that land. Any customers, whether they live in the US or in Europe, who sign agreements with any of these companies “agree” to subject themselves to the laws of the US regarding personal data and these laws allow the national authorities access to all personal data stored within their national boundaries in “matters of national security” and without a search warrant.

The US recently obtained a court order obliging Twitter to disclose all the personal data of four people connected with the founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, only two of whom are US citizens:  a politician from Iceland, the soldier suspected of “leaking state secrets,” a “hacker” and a programmer known to have worked with the website. The order permits access to telephone accounts, addresses, bank accounts and contacts from 2009 and does not respect international frontiers.

Companies who receive such court orders are usually prohibited from informing their customers that they are under investigation but in the case of Twitter the social networking site applied to the tribunals in the US to allow it to inform its customers of the proposed investigation. The judge allowed the petition which gives those affected 10 days to seek legal recourse against the disclosure of their personal data.

According to the Judicial Affairs Committee of the American Senate “numerous civil rights organizations have applied for the law to be changed to incorporate the same legal requirements for data disclosure on the Internet as apply to telephones and mail where a search warrant is required.” The Committee also considers it should be “obligatory” that customers are notified when an application to disclose their personal data has been made.

All the Internet companies with data warehousing in the US inform their customers they are subject to the US laws regarding personal data. However, it is probable many customers have only realized the full implications when Twitter received the court order this month.

In Europe there are strict rules regarding personal data and the Data Protection Act lays down legal requirements for investigations involving phone tapping and intercepting private mail. However, there is no protection under this legislation regarding personal data on the Internet if the service companies are based in America. Legal challenges to inhibit access to personal data stored in the US are subject to the US legal system.

The European Twitter customers affected by the recent court order are supported by the European Liberal Party and are expected to apply to the European court to decide whether the US application “contravenes the norms of European data protection.”

NEXOnr Calasparra