Defense in US murder case can obtain private social media posts

This file photo taken on March 31, 2012 shows the US Supreme Court building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (AFP)
Updated 23 July 2019

Defense in US murder case can obtain private social media posts

SAN FRANCISCO: The California Supreme Court has effectively ruled that the defense in a gang-related murder trial can obtain private postings from social media companies.
The court lifted a stay of a ruling by the judge overseeing the San Francisco trial and noted that the judge’s findings strongly justify access in this case, the Los Angeles Times reported. It’s the first time such an order has been enforced in a California court, the Times said.
Last year, the California Supreme Court ruled that the defense in the gang case could have social media postings that were public at the time of the killings, but that ruling did not deal with private postings.
The Supreme Court ruling means that the lower court judge could review any postings obtained from Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and decide which ones will be given to the defense.
Facebook has an ongoing appeal against the San Francisco judge’s ruling. However, if the ruling is upheld and Facebook refuses to hand over postings, it might be held in contempt of court.
“We believe that federal law prohibits an order requiring us to turn over private Facebook and Instagram account content of crime victims to a defendant and his defense lawyers,” Facebook said in a statement. “We will continue to protect our users’ privacy interests and are considering options in light of the court’s order.”
A message seeking comment from Twitter was not immediately returned.
The California Supreme Court’s decision is not binding on other courts, but it is expected to be cited by defense attorneys seeking private posts in other cases.
For years, social media companies have opposed efforts by criminal defense attorneys to access accounts, arguing that federal privacy law — the Stored Communications Act — bars cooperation except in limited circumstances.
In the past, only law enforcement has been able to force social media companies to provide private postings.

The criminal case is the prosecution of a killing and attempted killing involving a June 2013 drive-by shooting in San Francisco.
A 14-year-old boy who participated in the shooting told police that beforehand he had interacted with the slain victim, who had “tagged” him on Instagram in a video that included guns.
The boy said he shot that victim six times and asserted that the victim “would have done the same thing to us.”
The boy was tried in juvenile court and found to be responsible for the murder of Jaquan Rice Jr. and attempted murder of Rice’s girlfriend, who was a minor. The boy was declared a ward of the court, and he was committed for a term of 83 years, four months to life.
Two other defendants, Derrick Hunter and Lee Sullivan, were separately indicted on murder, attempted murder and other charges.
Prosecutors say Hunter, Sullivan and the minor are members of a gang and that Rice was killed because he was part of a rival gang and threatened the boy via social media. They recently invoked their right to a speedy trial, and a jury was selected earlier this month.
Defense attorneys have served subpoenas on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter in an effort to gain access to private, public and deleted postings from the accounts of Rice and a prosecution witness.


US media questions Bezos hacking claims

Updated 25 January 2020

US media questions Bezos hacking claims

  • Experts said while hack “likely” occurred, investigation leaves too many “unanswered questions”
  • Specialists on Thursday said evidence was not strong enough to confirm

LONDON: An investigation into claims that the phone of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was hacked has been called into question by cybersecurity experts and several major US media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and the Associated Press (AP).

Specialists on Thursday said evidence from the privately commissioned probe by FTI Consulting is not strong enough for a definitive conclusion, nor does it confirm with certainty that his phone was actually compromised.

The Wall Street Journal reported, late on Friday: “Manhattan federal prosecutors have evidence indicating Jeff Bezos’ girlfriend provided text messages to her brother that he then sold to the National Enquirer for its article about the Amazon.com Inc. founder’s affair, according to people familiar with the matter.”

Experts said while a hack “likely” occurred, the investigation leaves too many “unanswered questions,” including how a hack happened or which spyware program was used, the Associated Press (AP) reported.

Steve Morgan, founder and editor-in-chief of New York-based Cybersecurity Ventures, said the probe makes “reasonable assumptions and speculations,” but does not claim 100 percent certainty or proof.

UK-based cybersecurity consultant Robert Pritchard said: “In some ways, the investigation is very incomplete … The conclusions they’ve drawn, I don’t think, are supported by the evidence. They veered off into conjecture.”

Alex Stamos, former chief security officer at Facebook, wrote that the FTI probe is filled with “circumstantial evidence but no smoking gun.”

Matt Suiche, a Dubai-based French entrepreneur and founder of cybersecurity firm Comae Technologies, told AP that the malicious file is presumably still on the hacked phone because the investigation shows a screenshot of it.

If the file had been deleted, he said the probe should have stated this or explained why it was not possible to retrieve it. “They’re not doing that. It shows poor quality of the investigation,” Suiche added.

Reports on Wednesday suggested that Saudi Arabia was involved in the phone of Bezos being hacked after he received a WhatsApp message sent from the personal account of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The Saudi Embassy in the US denied the allegations, describing them as “absurd.” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan called the accusations “purely conjecture” and “absolutely silly,” saying if there was real evidence the Kingdom looked forward to seeing it.

A Wall Street Journal report quoted forensics specialists as saying the FTI investigation’s claims that Saudi Arabia was behind any possible hacking of the phone “appeared to forgo investigatory steps.”

CNN reported that critics of the probe highlighted a “lack of sophistication” in it, quoting Sarah Edwards, an instructor at the SANS Institute, as saying: “It does seem like (FTI) gave it a good try, but it seems they’re just not as knowledgeable in the mobile forensics realm as they could have been.”

The New York Times said the probe tried to find links between the possible hacking of the phone and an article in the National Enquirer about the Amazon CEO’s extramarital affair with Lauren Sanchez, but any link remains “elusive.”

National Enquirer owner American Media said in a statement regarding the source of the leak on Sanchez’s involvement with Bezos: “The single source of our reporting has been well documented, in September 2018 Michael Sanchez began providing all materials and information to our reporters. Any suggestion that a third party was involved in or in any way influenced our reporting is false.”