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Cloud services and search warrants: When are users notified?

April 27, 2012|By Michelle Maltais
  • Investigators with the Los Angeles County district attorney carry off boxes and computer hard drives after serving a search warrant at the offices of the Los Angeles County assessor in Culver City.
Investigators with the Los Angeles County district attorney carry off… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

Most cloud-service privacy policies address how they deal with your personal information and data about your usage, but less clear is whether they would tell you when and if law enforcement sought access to your files residing on their servers.

As the virtual reality online storage wars gear up, many consumers and privacy advocates have expressed concern about the policies that will be applied to the content that they would be moving into remote servers.

All of the services include a clause expressing that they will act in accordance with legal requests for data.

"Like all law-abiding companies, we comply with valid legal process," replied a Google spokesman. "Whenever we receive a request we make sure it meets both the letter and spirit of the law before complying. If we believe a request is overly broad, we will seek to narrow it."

Similarly, business-focused cloud service Box replied to our query saying, "Our policy is to have any subpoena or court order reviewed by our outside privacy experts."

Of course, that's to be expected of a business worth its salt. The more pressing issue for some time online is whether they are obligated in any way to tell the user that someone with a badge or authority wants to get a look at his content.

The only instance we could find of this being addressed was in Dropbox's terms of service. It reads: "To be clear, aside from the rare exceptions we identify in our Privacy Policy, no matter how the Services change, we won't share your content with others, including law enforcement, for any purpose unless you direct us to."

When we asked Dropbox for a bit more clarity, the company issued this response: “Our policy is to provide notice to users about law-enforcement demands for data, except in the event where the law or highly compelling circumstances prohibit us from doing so.”

Other cloud service providers also responded.

"In a situation where it is absolutely necessary to provide access, we would provide notice to the affected customer prior to disclosure (subject to our obligations under the subpoena or court order)," according to a Box spokesperson.

Google's spokesman replied in an email, "When possible and legal to do so, we notify affected users about requests for user data that may affect them."

We did reach out to Apple about its iCloud service and are awaiting a reply. 

DLA Piper senior partner Mark Radcliffe said of the concerns sprouting up around the nascent cloud computing industry, "I think what's going to happen over time, as more and more of these issues come up, people are going to demand more of these things and the terms will vary over time."

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