IP Addresses and an Expectation of Privacy — NIT and Government Malware

My criminal practice recently focused on a significant case involving IP addresses and privacy rights. The case involves government use of online surreptitious surveillance methods, an NIT, in a criminal investigation to determine a potential defendant’s Internet Protocol (“IP”) address, and thus home address, to subsequently serve criminal subpoenas and search warrants on that home address. The government maintains in these types of investigations potential criminal defendants have no expectation of privacy in their IP address. However, various criminal statutes, regulatory provisions, and sentencing guidelines reflect Congress’ intent to provide a national reasonable expectation of privacy rights in “IP” addresses and thus location data. This blog shall identify several federal statutes that establish Congressional privacy rights in IP or location address data.

In one criminal statute, Congress makes it illegal under 18 U.S.C. § 1030(5) to “knowingly cause[s] the transmission of a program, information, code, or command, and as a result of such conduct, intentionally causes damage without authorization, to a protected computer.” Subsection 1030(f) “does not prohibit any lawfully authorized investigative, protective, or intelligence activity of a law enforcement agency of the United States, a State, or a political subdivision of a State, or of an intelligence agency of the United States.” Congress’ requirement of a warrant in subsection (f), “prior authorization” through a judicially approved legal procedure and probable cause, indicates the privacy and constitutional rights that are applicable to these searches, when the take place in searching a defendant’s home pre-arrest.

In these cases, the Government maintains defendants do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their IP location data. They are wrong. The government thinks it is OK to hack private individual’s computers through a code or command sent to that computer. Courts have held these types of investigations are searches, requiring an authorized warrant, and thus judicial oversight. Required judicial oversight is Congressional recognition of privacy rights in location data.

This position is supported by a recent national criminal case. In 2013 various Chinese state co-conspirators were indicted for violating 18 U.S.C. §§ 1028 and 1030, et seq. At paragraphs 15, 18, and 43 of the indictment, the Government alleges these officials engaged in acts constituting violations of 18 U.S.C. § 1028(a)(1), 18 U.S.C. §§ 1028A(b), 1028A(c)(4), and 2. The blatant and outrageous criminal conduct at paragraphs 52-53 includes illegally taking personal identification information of another, without authorization. The Government equates stealing personal IP address and location data with violations of the United States Code.

The United States Sentencing Guidelines include a specific guideline provision devoted to theft of personal privacy data. For sentencing purposes, confidential information under 18 U.S.C. § 1039(h)(1)(A) includes personal location data. U.S.S.G. §2H3.1 addresses the manner in which federal courts are to assess offense levels and sentencing enhancements for violations of 18 U.S.C. § 1039.

In the context of active location data provided through cellular telephone surveillance capabilities, there has been extensive litigation over the definition of Other Information that is generated when utilizing a cellular telephone. Congress defines Other Information as historical and real time “cell site location information” (“CSLI”), which discloses location data of persons utilizing cellular telephones. In In re Application, 620 F.3d 304 (3d Cir. 2010), the Third Circuit addresses probable cause requirements in warrants seeking this information based upon the privacy issues attached thereto. See (http://www.phila-criminal-lawyer.com/Publications/005061214-Hark.pdf).

In 1997 Congress passed amendments to the Communications Act of 1934. Congress, and the FCC, through enabling regulations, passed numerous rules identifying and then delineating the exact nature of customers’ privacy rights to their personal information and telecommunication companies’ duty of protecting such from commercial exploitation. 47 U.S.C. § 222 was added to the Communications Act by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Section 222 of the Act establishes a duty of every telecommunications carrier to protect the confidentiality of customer proprietary network information (” CPNI”). CPNI is “information that relates to the quantity, technical configuration, type, destination, location, and amount of use of a telecommunications service subscribed to by any customer of a telecommunications carrier, and that is made available to the carrier by the customer solely by virtue of the carrier-customer relationship.” 47 U.S.C. § 501 makes it a crime to knowingly and intentionally violate (disclose this information) the Act.

The Privacy Act of 1974 addresses privacy of federal employees’ personal information. “No agency shall disclose any record which is contained in a system of records by any means of communication to any person, or to another agency, except pursuant to a written request by, or with the prior written consent of, the individual to whom the record pertains [subject to 12 exceptions].” 5 U.S.C. § 552 a(b). 32 CFR 505.7 – relating to Freedom of Information Act disclosures of Federal Employees personal information states at subsection (e) (1) states “The release of home addresses and home telephone numbers normally is prohibited.”

Release of personal location information is normally considered a clearly “unwarranted invasion” of personal privacy and is exempt from mandatory release under the FOIA. 32 CFR § 505.7(d)(1)(vi) identifies home addresses as personal information not to be release without prior consent of the individual. There is an entire Department of Justice Overview of this Act on its website. The DOJ has its own Chief Privacy and Civil Liberties Officer enforcing provisions of the Privacy Act on Federal employees and agencies. https://www.justice.gov/opcl/overview-privacy-act-1974-2015-edition.

Congress has established privacy obligations on the private sector through legislation affecting the financial services, health care, government, and Internet sectors. Federal regulations issued to carry out federal privacy laws impose obligations on covered entities to implement information security programs to protect unauthorized dissemination of private individual’s personal information. Protected personal information (“PPI”) in each service field typically includes name, address (location) date of birth, and social security numbers of the persons affected. A short list of CFR sections addressing PPI includes 32 CFR 701.115, 32 CFR 505.7, and 36 CFR 902.56.

In light of numerous federal statutes criminalizing any disclosure of personal privacy information (address location data) of both private and government employees, every defendant or target has a reasonable expectation of privacy in their location data, to which a legal and proper warrant is required for the Government to discover such information.

Please call me to discuss your case.


Network Investigative Techniques, Federal Criminal Search Tools, and Your 4Th Amendment Rights

My involvement for twenty five years in federal criminal matters has resulted in me handing many different Motions to Suppress. Recently, in the context of Federal internet criminal investigations, I have gained extensive experience fighting the new federal investigative techniques, (“NIT”) that reveal personal identity and location data.

Once such case involves the Government’s use of an NIT or Network Investigative Technique. The NIT is a malware program placed on a computer server that launches itself into each computer accessing that server to engage in alleged criminal activity.  The accessing computers utilize the TOR network for anonymity purposes.  Upon accessing specific areas of the server, the malware on the server then sends to the activating computer (in another state typically inside a person’s home) a code instruction to search, secure, and transmit back to the server the user’s IP address. Thereafter, search warrants secure the personal identification and location information of the accessing computer owner.

I have filed motions to suppress this search technique.  The Government bears the burden of showing, under the Fourth Amendment, the reasonableness of each individual act constituting a search or seizure. The burden of proof is by a preponderance of the evidence. The court is presented with the choice of two tracks of analysis. Does the court choose to evaluate these defendants’ constitutional rights affected by the NIT Warrant under the:
1) Reasonable expectation of privacy test set forth in United States v. Katz, 389 U.S. 347 (1967); or
2) The property-based Fourth Amendment test set forth in United States v. Jones, 565 U.S. ___, 132 S. Ct. 945 (2012). There, the court exclusively applied the property-based approach to determine whether a search occurs when the Government physically occupies private property of another for the purposes obtaining information. This approach keeps easy cases easy.


The court must choose the property-based search analysis set forth in JonesJones holds that surveillance on a person through electronic means without a warrant constitutes a trespass and may be an unconstitutional invasion of privacy. 132 S.Ct. at 953–54. Even though Jones involved warrantless global positioning system (“GPS”) searching, the analysis applies because the NIT warrant is illegal. Jones makes clear the constitutional nature of computer searches, especially in the privacy of one’s home.

Florida v. Jardines, 569 U.S. 1 (2013), follows Jones’ property – based Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.  The Jardines court held that a warrantless dog sniffing through the front door of Jardines’ home constitutes an unconstitutional search of a constitutionally protected area.  In Jardines, as here, “the officers learn what they learned only by physically intruding on Jardines’ property to gather evidence.”  This search activity is enough to establish that a search occurred. These cases stand for the proposition that the “Fourth Amendment, at its very core, stands for the right of a man to retreat into his home and there be free from unreasonable Government intrusion.” Jardines, supra.

There is no evaluation or discussion of an expectation of privacy under the property-based Fourth Amendment jurisprudence after JonesJardines, 569 U.S. at *9.  The court recognizes a simplistic procedure.  If the Government goes on the property of another, (trespassing or not) it needs a warrant due to Fourth Amendment’s constitutional property rights. These NIT cases, the Government understood this legal necessity and secured the NIT warrant. However, the NIT warrant was illegal.

  1. The Constitutional Character of the NIT Search is Per Se Prejudicial

In today’s society, disclosing an Internet Protocol (“IP”) address is, in essence, disclosing protected location privacy. Similar to Jones‘ GPS coordinates in tracking devices or cellular telephones, location data reveals a great deal about a person.  As such, cases discussing governmental activity and search techniques that reveal a defendant/target’s location are relevant to the court’s analysis of prejudice and the constitutional level of protections in these motions to suppress.

United States v. Maynard, 615 F.3d 544, 562 (D. C. Cir. 2010), affirmed, United States v. Jones, supra, stands for this proposition. Analogizing IP address location data to cellular telephones, Justice Alito writes that “society’s expectations have been that police agency and others will not secretly monitor and catalog every single movement of an individual’s car for a very long period of time.” Jones at 945.

Thereafter, in Riley v. California, ___ U.S. ___, 134 S. Ct. 2473 (2014), the Supreme Court following Jones, specifically references location privacy as a reason to limit police searches of cellular telephones incident to arrest.  The Riley Court determines that due to the wealth of information electronic devices “contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans the privacies of life.” Riley at 2494–95.

Riley even states, “The fact that an arrestee has diminished privacy interests does not mean that the Fourth Amendment falls out of the picture entirely. Not every search “is acceptable solely because a person is in custody.” Maryland v. King, 569 U. S. ___, ___ (2013) (slip op., at 26). To the contrary, when “privacy-related concerns are weighty enough” a “search may require a warrant, notwithstanding the diminished expectations of privacy of the arrestee.” Ibid. One such example, of course, is Chimel. Chimel refused to “characteriz[e] the invasion of privacy that results from a top-to-bottom search of a man’s house as ‘minor.’” 395 U. S., at 766–767, n. 12. Because a search of the arrestee’s entire house was a substantial invasion beyond the arrest itself, the Court concluded that a warrant was required.” Riley, supra.  Cellular telephones and home computers are simultaneously offices and personal diaries containing the most intimate details of our lives. United States v. Cotterman, 709 F. 3d. 952, 964 (9th Cir.. 2013).  Several circuits recognize these facts, uniformly requiring a warrant prior to searching a computer. United States v. Paton, 573F.3-D 859 (9th Cir. 2009); United States v. Andrus, 483 F.3d 711, 718 (10th Cir. 2007).

The Eastern District of Pennsylvania addresses surveillance issues of GPS warrants in United States v. Ortiz, 878 F. Supp. 2d. 515 (E.D.Pa. 2012). In the Court’s discussion of location data and the privacy issues, it concludes that the Government’s warrantless surveillance technique “produces location data while inside the garage of a home or other Fourth Amendment protected place”, potentially yielding information that the Supreme Court specifically found in United States v. Karo, 468 U.S. 705 (1984), is protected by the Fourth Amendment.

An unreasonable search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment occurs where, without a warrant, the Government surreptitiously employs an electronic device to obtain information it could not have obtained by observation from outside the curtilage of the house. The beeper tells the agent that a particular article is actually    located at a specific time in the private residence and is in the possession of the person or persons whose residence is being watched.  Even if visual surveillance has revealed that the article to which the beeper is attached  has entered the house, the later monitoring not only verifies the officers about observations but also establishes that the article remains on the premises. United States v. Karo 468 US at 715.

Ortiz at ___.

Review of these controlling Supreme Court cases and their emphasis on the data produced through cutting edge surveillance techniques (including an NIT) on electronic mediums (cellular telephones and home computers) render’s applicable the Fourth Amendment privacy protections afforded to Jones, Jardines, and Riley.

  1. Expectation of Privacy in an IP address

An expectation of privacy in location data that IP addresses reveal is both objectively and subjectively reasonable based upon people using the TOR network and how the Government secures those person’s IP address.  The Government typically argues that because these defendants may have initially disseminated their IP address through an internet service provider (“ISP”), they have no expectation of privacy in an IP address.  This is factually wrong.

  1. Third Party Doctrine

The case of Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735 (1979), addresses warrantless access to information possessed by a third-party. This is the third-party doctrine set forth in United States v. Jones, 132 S. Ct. at 957.  Third party dissemination and reduced expectation of privacy has no applicability here because of the NIT’s mechanism of search and how Government secures that defendant’s IP address from his computer, not a third-party ISP. The court requires factual testimony on this issue.

United States v. Stanley, 753 F.3d 114 (3d. Cir. 2014), specifically addresses the no expectation of privacy of IP addresses when a defendant uses his neighbor’s wireless router without permission. The Government found Stanley’s computer’s wireless signal piggy backing illegally on his neighbor’s unsecured wireless router. Such unauthorized use of the neighbor’s IP address through which a third-party provider secures individual media access control (“MAC”) addresses of moochers of other people’s wireless routers. The Court found this fact alone reveals that Stanley had no expectation of privacy in his IP or MAC address. Stanley‘s finding that there is not an expectation of privacy in an IP address is not binding here as such is not the basis of the Government’s investigation in this case.

These defendants’ IP addresses are not disclosed anywhere throughout the use of the TOR or his third party ISP.  Declaration, Special Agent Daniel Alfin, document no. 74-1, filed June 1, 2016, U.S. v. Matish, 4:16-cr-00016, attached hereto at Exhibit 3.  This declaration makes clear that the NIT did not secure any other defendant’s, IP address from a third-party ISP or through the TOR network. Rather, the NIT searched for and secured the accessor’s IP address SOLELY from their own computer programming.

The NIT transferred directly to the Government from that defendant’s computer, his IP address not through the ISP.  The Government must acknowledge this fact in response to court’s inquiry of how the NIT worked in Matish. The Government bluntly concedes that but for the IP address, it could not locate these defendants.  These IP address would have been unknown.  The accessing defendants’ personal location data is collected from the accessing computer. See Exhibit 3, Alfins’ declaration, ¶¶ 22 and 25; Exhibit 2, Alfin’s May 19, 2016 Testimony, page 13-17, 21–26.  Alfin makes clear this factual point.

Once put to the test in a Motion to Compel Discovery, Alfin’s testimony is in stark contrast to the NIT Affiant Special Agent Douglas Macfarlane’s affidavit stating that the NIT instructions “are designed to cause the user’s ‘activating’ computer to transmit certain information to a computer controlled by or known to the government,” including the “activating” computer’s actual IP address. See Affidavit in Support of Application for Search Warrant, at ¶ 33.   The NIT would deploy “each time that any user or administrator log[ged] into Playpen by entering a username and password.” (Id., Ex. 1 ¶ 36.) The FBI could then link a username and its corresponding activity on the site with an IP address. (Id., Ex. 1 ¶ 37.)  This is factually wrong when compared to Alfin’s declaration and testimony regarding how the NIT worked its search functions performed when an accessing computer logged onto the Playpen Website.

The Government was less than candid with the tribunal by not advising it that the NIT would send a computer search and seizure program to the user’s home computer and then send back to the FBI computer an IP address.  The FBI was not linking a username and corresponding activity to an IP address. Further, the record is unclear if the Government told  the Magistrate that it was concurrently filing a Title III warrant.  This would have disclosed both its strategic use of a magistrate to issue the NIT Warrant and its seizure gathering mechanism of electronic information for which it required Article III judicial authorization.

The NIT that accessed these defendants’ computers operates in the computer memory locations, retrieved information, and then leaves the computer. The same situation is presented when the Government comes into your house, searches your house, and then leaves. The Government is required to advise you of the search (giving you the search warrant) and then leaves you an inventory of items seized. None of that was done in this occasion.  Jones, Riley, Jardines affirm this constitutional requirement to which Rule 41(B) codifies into a procedure implementing the Fourth Amendment’s warrant provision.

As such, the question is not whether there’s a reasonable expectation of privacy in an Internet IP address (as Werdene concluded there was not), but does a person have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the area where the search (his home) occurred and in the information seized (his location).   Rakas v. Illinois, 439 U.S. 128 (1978). Darby and Matish conclude yes.  This court must choose the property-based Fourth Amendment analysis and afford these deendants the constitutional protections because the NIT searches a home-based computer.

Call me to discuss your NIT, Playpen based federal government internet criminal matter.

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