Grand Jury Requests Signal User Data And Essentially Receives Nothing

The secure messaging platform Signal has been well known for being one of the most secure communication mediums. In the past, we explained why Signal was found superior to similar software. On October 4, 2016, Open Whisper Systems (OWS) provided information that speaks to that effect.

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On WhisperSystems.org, the group published a federal grand jury subpoena that required information on two Signal users. Signal, as the group described, was designed to protect users from this specific occurrence.

The Subpoena:

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The subpoena requires information on two suspects in a federal criminal investigation. Both names have been redacted in the released documents. The subpoena further requires a gag order, preventing OWS from releasing any information to the public. According to the subpoena, release of any such information could potentially impact the case.

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OWS, being represented by the ACLU, responded to the FBI agent. As one might expect, OWS explained to the FBI that they did not have the data being requested. The only Signal data stored is the date and time a user signed up for Signal along with the last accessed date. On their website, OWS pointed out the information not stored.

Notably, things we don’t have stored include anything about a user’s contacts (such as the contacts themselves, a hash of the contacts, any other derivative contact information), anything about a user’s groups (such as how many groups a user is in, which groups a user is in, the membership lists of a user’s groups), or any records of who a user has been communicating with. All message contents are end to end encrypted, so we don’t have that information either.

In addition to lacking the requested information, one of the phone numbers was not associated with a signal account. Understandably, OWS was not able to provide the government with any reasonable amount of use-able data.

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Attachment A provided the entirety of the Signal data stored from the relevant party’s account.

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The OWS reply continued, questioning the validity of the requests in the subpoena. Despite not possessing such information, the ACLU pointed out that some of the data requested is only obtainable via a search warrant. “OWS objects to the use of a grand jury subpoena to request information beyond what is authorized,” the email continued.

In a follow-up email, the ACLU and OWS requested the removal of the gag-order. According to the ACLU, the gag order was inherently constitutional.

The ACLU described how the government consistently abuses gag orders in their post on the topic:

The First Amendment requires that to close courtrooms or seal evidence—and especially to prohibit a party from speaking publicly on a matter of public concern—the government demonstrate a compelling interest in secrecy, and it must apply that secrecy in the narrowest possible way. But instead, the government appears to seek blanket gag orders by default, without considering precisely what information can be disclosed without harm to its interests.

The government responded promptly, allowing the gag order to be removed under certain conditions.

The redactions proposed by the ACLU and subsequently admitted by the judge who signed the gag order are as follows.

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The full transcript can be found here: whispersystems.org/bigbrother/

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