The global cyberspying scandal exposed by American whistle-blower Edward Snowden has taken a new twist, with the Hong Kong law firm representing internet entrepreneur Kim Dotcom voicing fears US authorities may have intercepted confidential communication with their client.
Haldanes wrote to the US Department of Justice last week to express fears that its privileged communications may have been intercepted. It sought assurances that this was not the case.
Along with six others, New Zealand-based Hong Kong resident Dotcom is fighting extradition to the US to face charges of copyright infringement, racketeering and money laundering in connection with the file-sharing website Megaupload. All the accused deny the charges.
Haldanes' request to the department coincides with a report from Reykjavik that Iceland had received an informal approach from Snowden for asylum there.
WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson told Reuters that an intermediary had approached him on Snowden's behalf.
"On 12 June, I received a message from Edward Snowden where he asked me to notify the Icelandic government that he wanted to seek asylum in Iceland," said Hrafnsson, who is also a journalist in Iceland.
The Icelandic government refused to say whether it would grant asylum to Snowden but confirmed it had received the message from Hrafnsson. Iceland has a reputation for promoting internet freedoms, but Snowden has said he travelled to Hong Kong immediately from the United States as he feared the country of only 320,000 could be more easily pressured by Washington.
Haldanes' questions about covert surveillance will heap more pressure on the Hong Kong government to address claims by Snowden in an interview with the Post last week that the United States has been hacking into computers in Hong Kong and on the mainland for years under the US spy programme Prism.
Last night, in response to questions from the Post, a spokesman for the Department of Justice said: "In accordance with the established practice, the Department of Justice does not see fit to comment on the specific details of individual cases."
Haldanes solicitor Geoffrey Booth said: "We have written to the [department] to ask them if there has been any interception of legally privileged material. We haven't had a reply. It would be useful to know from Mr Snowden if he was aware that this particular type of interception was being practised under Prism."
Dotcom's substantial assets in the city were frozen by Hong Kong authorities in a joint operation with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation in January 2011.
Booth said the law firm was particularly concerned because, while the US response to Snowden's cyberspying leaks now focuses its justification on the grounds that hacking operations help stop terrorist attacks, this was not the case when the scandal first broke.
"Senior US government officials are using the justification of preventing terrorist attacks - which no one can argue with. But they have also used the cybercrime investigations as a justification," he said.
In the early stages of the scandal, US Attorney General Eric Holder said the Prism programme was aimed at "facilitating the acquisition of foreign intelligence information on targets outside the US".
Booth said: "The issue is, have [the US] been eavesdropping on privileged communications between a lawyer and his clients over a matter of alleged copyright infringement? If they have, then this crosses a boundary and needs to be regulated."