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Criminal Defense, Internet Crimes

Your Private Messages May Not Be So Private According To Recently Obtained FBI Documents

A recently released document created by the FBI’s Science and Technology Branch and Operational Technology Division gives rare insight into the Bureau’s ability to legally access user data from messaging apps. The nonprofit group Property of the People obtained the FBI’s “Lawful Access” document through a Freedom of Information Act request and provided a copy to Rolling Stone.

The internal document instructs law enforcement which data it can access from specific messaging platforms. The document reveals that two (2) of the most popular messaging apps, iMessage and WhatsApp, may also be the most vulnerable to the FBI’s efforts.

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The Lawful Access document indicates that WhatsApp, the world’s largest messaging platform with nearly 2 billion users, provides the most data to the FBI. When presented with a search warrant, WhatsApp will turn over a targeted user’s contacts, as well as the information of any other WhatsApp users who have the targeted user in their respective contacts. In response to a pen register, WhatsApp can produce a targeted user’s data every 15 minutes. This data includes the source and destination of each message but not the actual message content. According to the document, WhatsApp is the only messaging service to provide law enforcement with user data in nearly real-time.

The document also reveals the FBI’s ability to obtain user data from Apple’s popular messaging service, iMessage. When served with a court order or search warrant, Apple provides basic subscriber information and a 25-day history of a targeted user’s queries created in iMessage.  This can include what the targeted user looked up in iMessage and which other users searched for the targeted user in iMessage. Again, the FBI cannot access the content of messages or even whether messages were actually exchanged.

But there is one big caveat, and that’s when a targeted user backs up their iMessage account to iCloud, Apple’s online storage platform. When that happens, the document reveals that the FBI can obtain the content of messages sent and received using iCloud.

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So which messaging platforms are least likely to provide data to law enforcement? Less mainstream messaging platforms such as Signal or Wickr purportedly provide only limited data, such as the date and time a user downloaded or signed up for the app, or the type of device running the app.

It is important to know that the above-mentioned information only applies when law enforcement accesses an application or Cloud data as provided by the app intermediary. Law enforcement has much greater access and control when they have physical possession of a device.

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Brad Wolfe is an Internet and Computer Crimes defense lawyer, the past Chair of the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association’s Cyber Security, Data Privacy & Emerging Technologies Section, and the current Chair of the Criminal Law Section. If you have been charged with an Internet and/or computer crime, or are under investigation, call (216) 815-6000 to speak with Brad today.
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