Efforts are intensifying to retrieve data belonging to potentially millions of users of Megaupload's online storage service following the company's dramatic shuttering by U.S. law enforcement authorities earlier this month.
A lawyer for Megaupload said today that the two companies hosting the online file-sharing site's content have agreed not to destroy the data for at least another two weeks.
Meanwhile, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has begun a campaign urging "innocent users" of Megaupload's service to get in touch with EFF to explore possible legal avenues for retrieving the data.
The actions stem from a letter filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia by federal prosecutors last week. That letter noted that the U.S. had completed copying all the data it needed from Megaupload's servers and had returned custody of the servers to Cogent and Carpathia Hosting, the two companies Megaupload used to host its data. The letter added that the two companies could start deleting Megaupload data as early as Feb. 2
In response, Carpathia yesterday said it did not have any control over the data and had not informed prosecutors of any plans to destroy it. The company today created a website where it touted its support for EFF's plans to assist Megaupload users.
The site is designed to "help lawful users in the United States work with EFF to investigate their options for retrieving their legitimate, non-infringing files from Megaupload," the company noted.
Cogent did not respond to a request for comment.
Ira Rothnek, the lawyer representing Megaupload in the U.S., today said in an interview that the company would like to give legitimate users access to their data. "However, its assets -- including its money -- are frozen, so Megaupload is working with the U.S. to unfreeze some funds so they can pay Carpathia and Cogent to give consumers access to their data," he said.
Rothken said that the data on Megaupload's servers is vital from an evidentiary standpoint, too.
"The data is important for the defense of Megaupload," Rothken said. "In order to have a trial based on the merits of the case, all the data needs to be preserved. Megaupload is obviously is not interested in any adversary just picking and choosing what data best suits their case," he said.
Megaupload.com, which was among the top 100 Internet sites when it was busted earlier this month by authorities, is alleged to have been used to illegally store and share movies, TV programs, music and other copyrighted content. The company claimed that its site was used by millions of people to also store legitimate data, including work-related documents, family photos and other personal information.
The legal battles between the government and Megaupload are unlikely to end soon, EFF staff attorney Julie Samuels noted in a blog post.
"In the meantime, however, many ordinary users of Megaupload's services have been swept up in the government's dragnet, and, as a consequence, have lost access to their own data," Samuels wrote.
She criticized the government for failing to give notice to consumers about the potential data loss and for offering no clear path for retrieving it. "Megaupload, of course, had many lawful customers" whose data is now at risk, Samuels wrote. "Setting aside the legal case against Megaupload, the government should try to avoid this kind of collateral damage, not create it."
In an interview, Samuels praised both Cogent and Carpathia for agreeing not to immediately delete the data. She expressed hope that Megaupload, the government and the hosting providers would work out some sort of arrangement allowing users to retrieve legitimate data from the company's servers.
"This is a pretty unique case for a couple of reasons," Samuels said. "This is an incredibly large number of account holders you are talking about here, maybe upwards of 50 million. It is also rare to see cases like this in the criminal context where a site is taken down in the dark of the night with no prior warning."
Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.