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FBI claims to have cloned mail server and inboxes last year

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It appears the US Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) has a copy of a server used by TorMail – a hidden email service that tries to keep its users anonymous.

In a court filing [PDF] that emerged this week, it's said FBI agents obtained the contents of a TorMail server last summer. According to the statement, submitted by a US postal inspector and signed off by a magistrate judge, the copied server contains the contents of TorMail inboxes.

The court document states the files were obtained just before the Tor-connected mail service went offline in August – a time when various systems on the Tor network vanished as the FBI swooped on an alleged child-abuse material distributor thought to be using the network.

The postal inspector's filing claims:

Between July 22, 2013 and August 2, 2013, in connection with an unrelated criminal investigation, the FBI obtained a copy of a computer server located in France via a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty request to France, which contained data and information from the Tormail email server, including the content of Tormail e-mail accounts.

According to the postal inspector's court document, data from that TorMail server was used as evidence in another case of alleged criminal activity on the Tor network: it's alleged a Florida man named Sean Roberson ran a fraud ring that sold counterfeit credit and debit cards as well as phony ID cards. Among the evidence gathered were orders processed through a Gmail and TorMail account.

Should the FBI indeed have an unencrypted copy of the TorMail archives, many users who had operated under the assumption that their communications were fully safe and anonymized could be left vulnerable.

The landing page of the TorMail website on the public internet states that the service is designed to be anonymous and will not comply with orders from law enforcement to turn over its data.

"We have no information to give you or to respond to any subpeona's or court orders," the page reads. "Do not bother contacting us for information on, or to view the contents of a Tor Mail user inbox, you will be ignored."

While Tor services are commonly used by privacy-conscious folks to avoid snooping and tracking by internet firms and the authorities, g-men have used tricks such as exploiting security vulnerabilities and tracing local network activity to catch those who try to mask their tracks with the anonymizing network. ®

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