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Curiosity question only, as usual for me. I'm asking about US laws specifically.

Suppose someone is accused of a crime and the police have sufficient evidence to obtain a search warrant for his computers. However, all of the suspect's activity and data are "in the cloud," hosted remotely by third-party servers, data stores, and virtual machines.

Can the police get a search warrant for such third party systems? For instance if he has a virtual machine hosted by Amazon, would they serve the warrant on Amazon, or on the suspect?

What could police do if the suspect was using hosts located outside of the U.S.?

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Although the USA don't like it, there's a department called INTERPOL which is composed by about 150 countries.

When a crime is committed and you need to involve another country to solve it, the sovereignty of each County prevents a police officer from one country acting upon another country. That's when the INTERPOL comes in. They usually requests the police from that country to act up. A judge from that country will grant their local police access to the data to be delivered to the country that requested it.

Can the police get a search warrant for data 'in the cloud'?

Yes. If the servers are located within the boundaries of your own country, it's a normal procedure. But like the above answer states, it's easier to subpoena the records than to execute a search warrant. In a subpoena, the company itself is bound to provide everything the police asks.

Can the police get a search warrant for such third party systems?

Yes. If there's enough probable cause, the investigation can lead to allow the police to try and discover files that are held by servers that store the cloud data. But if the servers are located outside the country and the company does not have any office opened in the country, a search warrant won't have validity in another jurisdiction and the police can't act without breaking the sovereignty principle. That's where the INTERPOL services are handy. The department is built in the principle of polices from different countries helping each other. The downside is that it's too bureaucratic and it takes a lot of time.

For instance if he has a virtual machine hosted by Amazon, would they serve the warrant on Amazon, or on the suspect?

Like mentioned by @Viktor, if the company has an office within the bounds of your country, it's easier to subpoena the records because that way the company will filter and provide only the data linked to the suspect being investigated. That is, the subpoena will have both the name of the company (Amazon) and the name of the Suspect, so the company can provide only the necessary files.

Update

If the police lack sufficient evidence for a search warrant, but an interpol country was, for some reason, willing to work with the police to collect and provide that information would they be able to use it even if they wouldn't have been able to subpoena a US country?

Hypothetically speaking, I see your follow-up as a company that do have a local office and the Federal Police was turned down by a judge on a warrant/subpoena. In that case, there's no reason for another's country police to act on their own country. The suspect is a foreign suspect, the crime is a foreign crime and the police has no reason to work on it.

But for the sake of argument, let's say that the local police was turned down by a judge for lack of evidence or something and the suspect has been investigated by a foreign country or whatever. If the information that the local police desires to obtain is available through the INTERPOL, it's most likely to be accepted since it's a data stored by an international police department. In your scenario, the foreign police was granted a legal right to search and collected the data for legal purpose. Maybe they can't use it in their own country, but since they followed a safe chain of custody and provided the information to the INTERPOL, that information has legal validity and it is not fruit of the poisonous tree if the chain of custody was maintained.

  • Hmm, an interesting follow up. If the police lack sufficent evidence for a search warrant, but an interpol country was, for some reason, willing to work with the police to collect and provide that information would they be able to use it even if they wouldn't have been able to subpena a US country? For instance if we had strong proof someone was guilty of a crime, but could not use it for a subpeana because it was obtained through some violation of suspects rights could we still convince another country to yield data because we do know he is guilty and then claim that data was untainted? – dsollen Nov 10 '15 at 14:59
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If the servers are located within the USA, the police typically obtain a subpoena and not a warrant, much less bureaucracy and they don't have to go through the whole process of executing a warrant. The subpoena forces the cloud file hosts to give any data on the subject under investigation. Typically subpoenas can be issued for any company with a presence in the USA, even if the servers are outside the country.

If there is no presence in the USA, the law enforcement officers would have to work with local police to retrieve the data. If it's a particularly important case and the local authorities are not helping, it is possible that the state department would get involved to try to obtain the evidence.

  • This raises an interesting question: under what conditions could the data in question be considered as "papers or effects" of the suspect? If it is, then the Fourth Amendment would seem to require a warrant instead of a subpoena. – Nate Eldredge Nov 7 '15 at 22:23
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    "Even if the servers are outside the country" will be causing more and more problems for US companies, as they can't give legally required guarantees to EU customers that the customer's data is save. – gnasher729 Nov 7 '15 at 22:36
  • @NateEldredge take a look at this: propublica.org/special/… much better explanation and much more specific. Includes the exceptions to what I stated above. – Viktor Nov 7 '15 at 22:44

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