Federal prosecutors have accused Paul Manafort of witness tampering, alleging that he used WhatsApp and Telegram in an attempt to coordinate his testimony with old business associates. Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, may have thought that he was being sneaky by using encrypted chat apps, but Manafort just learned the hard way that strong encryption doesn’t really matter if you’re backing up your messages to the cloud—especially when the federal government gets a warrant to access your iCloud account.
The new court filing, made public just last night, outlines the communications that Manafort had with multiple unnamed sources. And while some of the sources willingly handed over WhatsApp and Telegram messages to special prosecutor Robert Mueller, it’s clear that the feds also have a court order to search through Manafort’s iCloud account.
A screenshot from the court filing is below, with highlighting by Gizmodo:
Manafort is accused of money laundering, tax evasion, and violating federal laws that require lobbyists to declare who they’re working for, known as the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Manafort allegedly lobbied for pro-Russian interests in Ukraine, and also lobbied in the United States. Manafort has pleaded not guilty to the charges, though his longtime business partner Rick Gates has cut a deal and is cooperating with investigators.
WhatsApp allows both manual and automatic scheduled backups to iCloud, though it’s not clear what settings Manafort may have had on his device. As WhatsApp notes on its website, “Media and messages you back up aren’t protected by WhatsApp end-to-end encryption while in iCloud.”
Manafort’s messages include code names for people and they allegedly show an attempt to get everyone on the same page about their testimony. One of the people that Manafort communicated with alleges that Manfort was trying to “suborn perjury” by saying that the Hapsburg group only did lobbying work in Europe and not the United States.
“We should talk. I have made clear that they worked in Europe,” one of Manafort’s messages reads.
So how does the government gain access to someone’s iCloud account? It’s pretty straightforward. If the feds present Apple with a lawful court order, Apple must give prosecutors like Mueller access to an iCloud account under 18 U.S. Code § 2703. Apple even has a special email address for the process, firstname.lastname@example.org. Prosecutors can also request that anything in iCloud be retained for as long as 180 days under federal law.
What can the average person do to protect themselves from the prying eyes of the feds? Number one is don’t do crimes. Manafort appears to have skipped that step. Number two is, once you’re being investigated for doing crimes, don’t think that an encrypted messaging app will keep your messages hidden from the cops, especially if you’re backing everything up to iCloud. And number three, even if you keep messages out of iCloud, remember that the person you’re sending those messages to could give them to police.
President Trump keeps calling Robert Mueller’s investigation a “witch hunt” in an attempt to undermine the entire process as prosecutors gets closer and closer to the president himself. And Trump is clearly sending a signal to people like Manafort that he’s ready to give out pardons. Trump even declared that he has the right to pardon himself yesterday.
Did Manafort break numerous federal laws? That’s up for the government to prove. But could you ever believe that a guy like this would ever lie about doing crimes? It’s unimaginable.