FBI issues Google search warrant for user data

When Google discloses requests from authorities and governments worldwide on suspected criminals, it rarely sheds any light on what is being sought after.

Google says it "regularly receives requests from government agencies and courts around the world to ... hand over user data."

In Australia, Google received 361 requests from January to June 2011, with an extraordinarily high level of compliance at 73 per cent, but still well short of the US authorities nearly 6000 requests for user data, complied with 90 per cent of time.

However, these figures give little away about what user information authorities are seeking Google out for.

Highly regarded security and privacy researcher Christopher Soghoian stumbled upon an FBI search warrant application that may force Google to unlock a US suspect's Android device.

The suspect the FBI is eyeing is Dante Dears, allegedly a co-founder of the human-trafficking affiliated organisation, Pimpin Hoes Daily or PhD.

Dears had allegedly conducted most of his prostitution activities and human trafficking coordination via his mobile phone, leading to the FBI's interest in getting Google involved.

Additionally, police seized Dears' phone in January this year but he refused to hand over the pass lock, with which authorities could have used to access the type of information it is now leaning on Google for.

The FBI now wants Google to provide a full list of Dears' email addresses, phone numbers, social networks, account log-in and password information, the Samsung device serial number and SIM card data, as well as ay texts Dears sent.

The search warrant, if granted, would permit a search by authorities at Google's Mountain View headquarters, asking the data giant to hand over everything it collects on a user, such as internet histories, search terms and the numbers of the devices under its Android platform.

But Soghoian questions whether the FBI really need Google's assistance in acquiring the information it wants on Dears since the suspect's phone is still activated passively in the sense it can sill receive texts.

The warrant aimed at Google further suggests the true efficiency gains for law enforcement to exploit log data rather than gather evidence over weeks and months from traditional intercepts .

"First, it suggests that the FBI's computer forensics lab in Southern California is unable, or unwilling to use commercially available forensics tools or widely documented hardware-hacking techniques to analyse seized phones and download the data from them," said Sogoihan.

"Second, it suggests that a warrant might be enough to get Google to unlock a phone, " he added, noting that it would be more appropriate, given the phone's live state, to obtain a wiretap order.

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