Google handed over private data of WikiLeaks staff to the United States government. Reuters

Google handed over confidential data of WikiLeaks’ staff to the U.S. government, prompting the whistleblower organization to send a letter to both the search engine giant and the U.S. Department of Justice seeking an explanation.

WikiLeaks announced on its website on Monday that its investigations editor Sarah Harrison, section editor Joseph Farrell, and senior journalist and spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson have received a notice that Google had handed over all their emails and metadata to the U.S. government, which has issued warrants alleging “conspiracy” and “espionage” against the journalists. The charges carry a prison sentence of up to 45 years.

“The US government is claiming universal jurisdiction to apply the Espionage Act, general Conspiracy statute and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act to journalists and publishers – a horrifying precedent for press freedoms around the world,” WikiLeaks said on its website.

In its letter to the justice department and the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, WikiLeaks lawyers also requested more details on the ongoing investigation, which is based on the data provided by Google.

“We have reason to believe that these warrants were issued in violation of the Privacy Protection Act of 1980 ("PPA"), 42 U.S.C. § 2200aa et. seq, which protects journalists and publishers from being forced to turn over to law enforcement their journalistic work product and documentary materials,” the lawyers wrote in the letter.

They also demanded an explanation from Google over its failure to immediately notify the three journalists, which allegedly prevented them from “protect[ing] their interests including their rights to privacy, association and freedom from illegal searches.” Google took almost three years to disclose to WikiLeaks that it had provided the journalists’ private data to the U.S. government, the Guardian reported.

“WikiLeaks has out endured everything the Obama administration has thrown at us and we will out endure these latest “offences” too,” Julian Assange, WikiLeaks' editor-in-chief said.