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DoJ Narrows Scope of DreamHost Warrant

The Department of Justice has scaled back the demands of a search warrant served to web hosting provider DreamHost.

When most IT managers think about cybersecurity, they're thinking about keeping their company's data safe from criminals and cyber-warfare opponents. Some service providers, most recently DreamHost, have expanded that list of adversaries to include the US Department of Justice. And on August 22, DreamHost scored a small victory in their most recent battle.

If you haven't been following this particular part of the news, back in July the Department of Justice obtained a federal warrant ordering DreamHost to turn over everything they had regarding www.disruptj20.org, a site hosted on the company's computers. DreamHost declined, stating that to do so would mean giving the DoJ (among other things) the IP address, and therefore a huge hint about the identity, of everyone who had ever visited the site.

Since approximately 1.3 million people had visited the site, and only 239 were arrested in the protest organized by the site, DreamHost stated that this meant the Fourth Amendment rights of approximately 1.3 million people would be violated. According to some legal analysis, DreamHost's objections are unusual since a two-step warrant process is normal.

In this two-step process, the government asks for, and receives, everything possible from a provider, then sorts through the information and throws away everything not specific to the original warrant. DreamHost objected to providing the first step because of the political nature of the site.

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Yesterday, news broke that the Department of Justice has scaled back its request for information. In a legal brief filed this morning, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Channing Phillips, wrote, "the Warrant was not intended to be used, and will not be used, to 'identify the political dissidents of the current administration[.]'... Nor will it be used to 'chill... free association and the right of free speech afforded by the Constitution.' "

The brief then goes on to say, "One of those challenges is that some of the evidence -- particularly the full scope of the evidence -- will be hidden from the government's view unless and until the government obtains a court order or search warrant." Translated into English, that means that the government doesn't know precisely what it's looking for until it sees everything you have. While common in cyber-warrants, this is the opposite of the logic used in most physical evidence warrants.

The DoJ said that it didn't realize that, in asking for everything DreamHost had, it would get log files that included IP addresses and has no desire to identify those who simply visited the site. DreamHost, for its part, stated in a blog post that, while it welcomes the DoJ's revisions, it doesn't believe they go far enough. DreamHost promises that it will lay out additional objections and seek further narrowing of the warrant in court proceedings on the morning of Thursday, August 24.

Disclosure: The author is a long-time customer of DreamHost and continues to host websites and email services with the company.

— Curtis Franklin is the editor of SecurityNow.com. Follow him on Twitter @kg4gwa.

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