Sony Just Coughed Up PS4 Data To The FBI In A Kansas Terror Investigation
Sony has handed over information to the FBI on a PlayStation 4 user suspected of planning to travel from Kansas to the Middle East to fight on behalf of a terrorist organization, in what Forbes believes is the first public case of PS4 data being passed to the cops by the tech giant. It also appears to be the first example of Sony providing data on any of its console users after receiving a government order.
In its warrant, the FBI asked Sony for details related to the PlayStation activities of Isse Aweis Mohamud, who was suspected of planning to travel to Iraq, via Egypt, to fight for a terrorist organization. Though the FBI didn’t claim he had actively pursued recruitment by ISIS, it did mention the extremist group in its warrant application.
That application was filed back in May 2017, but it’s only this week that Sony’s disclosure was revealed. Reports focusing on Mohamud’s interest as a terrorism suspect last spring didn’t note the police were looking at his PlayStation as a possible source of evidence.
According to a search warrant execution document made public this week, Sony returned a handful of information to the police, including account registration and associated device details for the PlayStation Network user ID DejanWoW, console activity, sales history as well as device message history for both PlayStation 3 and 4 consoles. The WoW in DejanWoW could well relate to the massively popular multiplayer game World of Warcraft, though the title isn’t available on the PlayStation and there’s no mention of the suspect’s involvement in the game.
Why search a PlayStation?
Indeed, there isn’t much information on why the police thought the PlayStation 4 could provide them with valuable information in the case. Suspicion seems to have arisen after the police interviewed Mohamud’s brother, who told them the suspect had deleted all the information from the PS4. The brother told investigators some other anecdotal details, including the following, as per the search warrant affidavit (published in full below): “Mohamud’s brother also stated that in recent months Mohamud had installed a lock on the door of a garage at the family’s home, was very private about the area, and did not allow anyone to enter that room. Mohamud’s brother reported that from outside the garage he sometimes could hear Mohamud talking on the PS4 inside the garage.”
The FBI were able to carry out an initial search of the PS4, after Mohamud gave them permission. Though that simply revealed the PlayStation had indeed been wiped, including any communications the cops may have found interesting. Investigators also sought data from Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo, after they found accounts they believed were linked to Mohamud.
With no information available on the device, the cops went to Sony (the warrant notes that the data was stored at Sony’s San Mateo, California, headquarters). It was there that the police were able to get hold of the messages they were after.
Suspicion that Mohamud may have wanted to join an extremist group in Iraq came after his mother reported him missing, fearing he’d gone overseas to fight for a jihadi organization. The FBI eventually tracked him down to Cairo, Egypt, where he was detained and interviewed by federal investigators. There he revealed he wanted to join a group known as The Strangers, believed to be the general name for foreigners looking to join extremist jihadist groups, according to the affidavit. And, as noted in the warrant application, ISIS has referred to “The Strangers” in propaganda videos (though prosecutors didn’t go as far as saying Mohamud was planning to fight for ISIS).
Just last month, Mohamud was sentenced to four years for passport fraud. He admitted lying on a passport application, when he claimed he intended to visit Canada but used the passport to travel to Alexandria, Egypt. According to an NBC report, prosecutors said they’d found no direct evidence of terrorist offences carried out by Mohamud. Forbes found neither additional criminal complaints, nor evidence of an ongoing terror investigation into the now-incarcerated 22-year-old.
Requests for comment from the Department of Justice prosecutors and Mohamud’s legal representatives went unreturned.
Police playing with PlayStations
Though it may be the first documented case of Sony acquiescing to a government data request, it isn’t the first time the PlayStation has been linked to terrorist activity. Belgian federal home affairs minister Jan Jambon said in 2015, just after the Paris attacks that left 127 people dead, that the PS4 was used by ISIS agents to communicate and was “even more difficult to keep track of than WhatsApp.” That Sony was able to hand over messages from PS3 and PS4 devices in the Mohamud case may contradict Jambon’s thinking, however.
It’s also not the first time cops have sought access to Sony’s gaming devices in serious criminal investigations. Forbes unearthed a handful of search warrants for PlayStations and PS Vita devices over the last five years. For instance, again in Kansas, a PS Vita was searched as part of an investigation into an alleged user of child abuse site PlayPen in October 2017. Earlier in the year, in New Hampshire, a PlayStation 4 was successfully searched in another child pornography and abuse investigation, though little information was available on the case outside of devices searched, as prosecutors had sealed related documents. In those cases, investigators asked for permission to have their own forensic specialists pick through the devices to find any useful data.
But the fact that Sony relayed information to the FBI, rather than the cops having to dig into the PlayStation itself to retrieve data as they’ve done before, is something new. What’s obvious from the documents is that the police know Sony is sitting on an awful lot of information on its users, not just what they’re doing and buying but what they’re messaging to one another.
Perhaps the closest Sony has come to this kind of disclosure before was early last year, when Sony voluntarily handed over information on a user it believed was sharing child abuse images. That case had another ramification, though, indicating PlayStaion users may not have much recourse to complain if their device is searched or Sony hands over information. The Kansas judge presiding over the case ruled that a PlayStation Network account was not subject to the “reasonable expectation of privacy” as outlined in Fourth Amendment protections covering unreasonable searches.
In a world where Silicon Valley companies are baulking at giving up customers’ private information, Sony has been quiet on its own stance. The company hadn’t returned a request for comment at the time of publication.