January 28, 2014

SO THE “SECURE” PART WAS KIND OF A MISNOMER: If You Used This Secure Webmail Site, the FBI Has Your Inbox.

While investigating a hosting company known for sheltering child porn last year the FBI incidentally seized the entire e-mail database of a popular anonymous webmail service called TorMail.

Now the FBI is tapping that vast trove of e-mail in unrelated investigations.

The bureau’s data windfall, seized from a company called Freedom Hosting, surfaced in court papers last week when prosecutors indicted a Florida man for allegedly selling counterfeit credit cards online. The filings show the FBI built its case in part by executing a search warrant on a Gmail account used by the counterfeiters, where they found that orders for forged cards were being sent to a TorMail e-mail account: “platplus@tormail.net.”

Acting on that lead in September, the FBI obtained a search warrant for the TorMail account, and then accessed it from the bureau’s own copy of “data and information from the TorMail e-mail server, including the content of TorMail e-mail accounts,” according to the complaint (.pdf) sworn out by U.S. Postal Inspector Eric Malecki.

The tactic suggests the FBI is adapting to the age of big-data with an NSA-style collect-everything approach, gathering information into a virtual lock box, and leaving it there until it can obtain specific authority to tap it later. There’s no indication that the FBI searched the trove for incriminating evidence before getting a warrant. But now that it has a copy of TorMail’s servers, the bureau can execute endless search warrants on a mail service that once boasted of being immune to spying.

“We have no information to give you or to respond to any subpoenas or court orders,” read TorMail’s homepage. “Do not bother contacting us for information on, or to view the contents of a TorMail user inbox, you will be ignored.”

In another e-mail case, the FBI last year won a court order compelling secure e-mail provider Lavabit to turn over the master encryption keys for its website, which would have given agents the technical ability to spy on all of Lavabit’s 400,000 users – though the government said it was interested only in one. (Rather than comply, Lavabit shut down and is appealing the surveillance order).

I knew it was a mistake electing Dick Cheney to be Bush’s third and fourth terms. Oh, wait. . . .