Seizure of Servers; Co-mingled Data
What happens when police seize servers belonging to a cloud computing service provider?
Spring 2009, a federal district court granted the FBI a search warrant to seize control of computer servers and related equipment in facilities run by Core IP Networks. Apparently Core leased its facilities to the owners of servers, including a cloud computing service provider named Liquid Motors. Liquid Motors was not accused of wrongdoing, but the FBI had information suggesting that a criminal enterprise (including apparently Core) had used LM’s servers or some of the data stored in them.
LM helps large, national auto dealers manage their inventory and Internet marketing. The seizure shut LM down, and debilitated the operations of its innocent customers. The data of all LM users and customers were co-mingled in a cloud-computing style.
Request Relief from Court
LM promptly requested that the court cause the FBI to release the servers. It claimed that it and its innocent customers were suffering great economic hard.
The court denied the request. The court was satisfied that the FBI had adequate justification to hold the servers.
Court Appearance Gives FBI Sense of Urgency
However, the court hearing put FBI under the spotlight. FBI did not want to appear unreasonable in court. Recognizing the economic impact of its action, the FBI said it was working urgently (over a weekend) to copy data from the hard drives of the servers, with a view to returning the servers to LM as quickly as possible. Liquid Motors, Inc. v. Lynd, No. 3:09-cv-0611-N (N.D. Tex. April 3, 2009).
As cloud computing becomes more common, I suspect courts will come to expect police like FBI to refine their methods so that targeted data can be secured without damaging all the innocent people whose data and services are coincidently housed with it. Refined methods might include, for example, allowing servers to continue functioning normally while target records are copied.
The customers of cloud services face more than just the risk that police will confiscate a provider's servers. The provider may go into bankruptcy or suffer sabotage at the hands of a disgruntled employee. To address these risks, customers might spread or duplicate their data and services across multiple service providers, located in multiple jurisdictions.
–Benjamin Wright, Legal Issues Instructor at the SANS Institute
Update: The risk that police raids will damage innocent cloud customers needs to be seen in context. Similar risk applies in many sectors of the economy. It is not uncommon that the seizure of assets by police affects innocent bystanders. For example, FBI confiscated $392,000 of cash belonging to an innocent New York check-cashing company when it seized assets from an armored car company under investigation. John Emshwiller and Gary Fields, "Federal Asset Seizures Rise, Netting Innocent with Guilty," Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2011.
New Ideas: Post banner to promote confidentiality at data center.
Related: Opinion regarding Megaupload Takedown and