We recently wrote how deleted Yahoo emails were questionably involved in a drug trafficking case – and in a development to that story, a judge is ordering Yahoo to explain how it was done.
While serving a 16-year sentence in UK prison cell, Russell Knaggs orchestrated a plan to import five tons of cocaine from South America, hidden in boxes of fruit. The case against him was built on emails between the collaborators of the plan – emails that had been seemingly deleted. And then somehow produced later in court by Yahoo.
Knaggs’ defense team, as well internet privacy advocates, have questioned Yahoo’s involvement the entire time. The email and search giant managed to contradict themselves throughout the entire case when the company’s law enforcement guide stated that Yahoo “is not able to search for or produce deleted emails,” but Knaggs’ defense team claims Yahoo did just that.
In a later statement to the press by Michele Lai, a custodian of records and the operations manager of the US Law Enforcement Response Team for Yahoo, wrote: “If a user deletes a communication from his or her account, the communication becomes inaccessible to the proprietary tools Yahoo uses to gather communications data in response to preservation requests and search warrants.”
As it turns out – Yahoo had turned over at least six months worth of emails that had been ‘deleted’ by the account holder. The defense was suspicious about how Yahoo was able to recover the emails in question and filed a discover order. US Magistrate Judge Maria-Elena James, in an order filed on Wednesday in a San Francisco court, granted the defense’s motion for discovery.
Yahoo says, in their defense, that the multi-step auto save feature on Yahoo accounts permitted the company to retrieve deleted emails – as the drafts themselves still had a backup on the server.
There is a multi-step process that must be completed before the previous drafts are permanently deleted from the email server system – and the user updating, changing, or even deleting the draft is only the first step in the deletion process. Even if the user deletes their draft email, the previous versions of the draft are not automatically removed from the email system; the user cannot see previous versions of the draft in their email account, but the previous versions remain in the email system and on Yahoo’s servers until the entire removal process is complete. And until the entire removal process is complete, the draft can still be captured in the account snapshots created by Yahoo.
According to this article, the defense team’s discovery motion requested more information regarding “Yahoo’s email and retention system, a copy of the retention software source code, and instruction manuals for the equipment Yahoo used to retrieve the emails.”
Judge Maria-Elena James found the requests to be a little extreme and instead required Yahoo to bring a witness in to talk about the email account and the events surrounding the deleted email retrieval.
She is requiring Yahoo to produce the witness and documents by 31 August.