Canadian Police Use Cell Tower Dumps To Text 7,500 Possible Murder Witnesses

from the new-phone-who-dis dept

Every so often, government entities are efficient despite themselves.

In a move they’re describing as “extraordinary” and “unprecedented,” Ontario Provincial Police will send text messages to about 7,500 people on Thursday to ask for information about an unsolved homicide.

Investigators are calling it a “digital canvass” — the high-tech equivalent of knocking on thousands of doors for information.

The police are utilizing “dumps” from cell towers in the area to obtain these phone numbers. And that’s all they’ve obtained, apparently. Using the list of connected phones in the area at the time of the murder, the police are sending text messages asking recipients to fill out a website questionnaire to help police find the killer.

As much as this might seem like an intrusion, it’s probably preferable to the alternative: sending out dozens of officers to question potentially thousands of witnesses. Obviously, it works out well for the police. But it also works out for citizens. Nothing obliges anyone to respond to the unsolicited texts and answering a few questions on a website is far less annoying than being questioned at home by officers peeking through open doors to see if they can spot anything resembling indicia of criminal activity. Why make the entire day a waste? Why not make a few ancillary arrests while investigating an unrelated crime?

Unfortunately, it appears ignoring the message (or sending back “UNSUBSCRIBE”) isn’t going to keep the cops from using your phone for their communications.

Investigators will also consider calling the numbers of people who don’t respond voluntarily, but they would be required to obtain another court order to do so.

The other troubling aspect is that the police obviously have no interest in destroying the phone data they’ve collected. It appears this will be held onto until the investigation is closed, even though the majority of the harvested numbers — if not all of them — will have zero relevance to the investigation other than their proximity to the crime scene.

The police have stressed that responses are completely voluntary, but the plans for follow-up calls suggest the opposite. On the plus side, if someone doesn’t want to speak to a cop, getting removed from the list is as simple as filling out a few questions on a website. No details were provided as to how much personal information respondents will have to turn over, though, so this exercise in government efficiency could become just another data-harvesting method. If not subjected to strict controls, any names collected could be run through criminal record databases in hopes of finding active warrants or unpaid fines. If so, it will be tempting to handle more investigations through tower dumps, text messages, and website questionnaires — what with all the extra arrests and revenue generation that may result from bulk texting.

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Comments on “Canadian Police Use Cell Tower Dumps To Text 7,500 Possible Murder Witnesses”

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28 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

A lot of the potential problems arising from use of this data be mitigated with an easy solution. If they want to mass ask all potential witnesses (which by itself is probably a good thing, people might have seen something, but did not know about the murder and did not draw the connection) instead of obtaining a dump and text all in that data dump, why not just give the phone company the message and ask them to push it to the phones. There is absolutely no reason for the police to know the numbers that was there that day.

This feels like a typical example of having potential problems because of over-sharing of data. Technically it could be done in a completely anonymous way, but was not. Real shame

Anonymous Coward says:

Nothing obliges anyone to respond to the unsolicited texts and answering a few questions on a website is far less annoying than being questioned at home by officers peeking through open doors to see if they can spot anything resembling indicia of criminal activity.

I guess I fail to see how this saves any time or has any investigative value, other than tipping off a suspect that he/she is potentially a suspect.

Anonymous Coward says:

This is REALLY lazy, and it endangers people

There used to be a time when police agencies employed detectives, who would, y’know, go out and detect. They’d use intelligence, persistence, experience, instinct, and reason to figure out crimes and identify suspects. These clowns — these incompetent, LAZY, clowns — are using spam. Whoever is responsible for this should be immediately fired and blacklisted from public service for life.

Second, by compiling this list, they’ve also compiled a list of people that’s also highly useful to the murderer(s). Granted, it’s a big list, and it seems unlikely that the murderer(s) will try to kill 7,500 people in an attempt to silence any witnesses…but they don’t have to.

Oh, and third: one or more of those phone numbers might belong to the murderer…who might choose to respond with “helpful” eyewitness testimony that is of course completely fabricated.

Anon E. Mous (profile) says:

“The police have stressed that responses are completely voluntary, “

So the Police are planning to text all of the 7500 numbers to ask if they know anything about a crime taking place in this specific area?

So what is there to say that the police havent scanned all these phone numbers with their databases to get subscriber info and then used that information to query any CPIC entries for criminal history with the subscriber info?

The Police are going to send out a text message to those who nenevr consented to reciev this information on this crime? How mnay of those mobile phone numbers were people passing thru? How mnay are of people who live there? How mnay are people who just haoppened to be there on the given time period?

This is a huge fishing expedition and I would bet is goimng to freak some of the recipients of this text message out, some people dont follow the news and may no nothing about the crime that took place if at all.

I can imagine the panicked phone calls the Police will get from some mobile phone subscriber about this message they recieved wondering WTF and why am I getting this.

The fact that the cop gobbled up all this cell tower information tells me they already suspected that the person or persons who committed the crime may have had a cell phone on and that they already looked thru the subscriber information of each number and cross referenced it with CPIC for criminal records with the subscriber name

This is a huge privacy issue in my opinion and one that should not be allowed, the fact that this will set a precident is even worse. The fact that the cops gathered up 7500 mobile numbers is bad enough, the fact that they can use this incedent and there blasting out a text message opens the door to further “needs” when a crime has occured to hoover up cell tower info, comb thru it and then point to this case to do the same thing over and over again.

This is the start of a very very slippery slope and I would be dollars to donuts that the Police are not telling everything about what they did with the mobile numbers from the cell tower dump that day, like if they crossed referenced them with CPIC.

This is another reason why the Governmebnt needs to enact and upgrade legislation as to why cellular service providers should be treating their customers information with more privacy and how any movements of a person cell phone and what towers it connects to should be regarded as private and a warrant should be needed to obtain it.

No cellular customer I doubt would want their information turned over without a fight from their cellular service provider without a warrant the fact that cops can hoover up 7500 peoples number without the judge or cellular provider having a WTF moment just shows you how eroded our rights are becoming when it comes to privacy

Anonymous Coward says:

Funny…So I just walked down to the store where several police were running up and down the block in search of a suspect with a gun. They stopped and asked me if saw anyone meeting their description on the opposite side of the street of where I was coming from and I told them everything that I remember, 2 women with their kids and some Asian student, possibly Chinese, with a book bag was all that I saw.

Not long after that encounter, did I begin to see multiple people fitting the description of perp…

So my question is, how in the holy fuck is texting thousands of people going to solve this case? People change clothes, people change locations, and more than likely, you’ll eventually find dozens who meet the description of that perp…for me, it took only a few minutes to spot a few…What would 12 hours do? The entire population?

Anonymous Coward says:

It would not be a bad idea...

in a universe where law enforcement hadn’t shown so many times how they misuse data or the power they had been given.
It would not be so bad if proper precautions were taken, since it has the potential to save man hours and find witnesses that would otherwise not have been found.
Unfortunately too many people distrust law enforcement and their handeling of data.
Who here believes that they restrict themselves to what is essential?
Who would belive that this is not just a step towards more data collection and especially if they are successful in finding a good lead?
Who belives anymore that there will be the someone competent and just watching over that data is not misused? Someone who would have the power to actually do something when it would inevitably happen.

Law enforcement have gained a deservedly bad reputation for very little gain and thrown this opportunity, to use data in a useful and positive way, away and it will take a long, long time to regain any trust if they ever will.

Atkray (profile) says:

Cop #1 Lets send a text to all these cell phones to find the murderer.

Cop #2 How will that work?

Cop #1 The cell phone that is shut off is the murderer.

Cop #2 But won’t the murderer know we would think that?

Cop #1 Yes he would, but since we didn’t catch the murderer in the act they must be intelligent so they would know we would think that.

Cop #2 Oh, so they will not shut their phone off?

Cop #1 Correct. Except being a murderer they won’t trust anyone so they will suspect that we will be setting a trap with the texts and will be afraid to receive the text. So the will Shut their phone off.

Cop #2 You truly have a dizzying intellect.

Cop #1 Yes Lieutenant, and that is why I am the Captain.

you must be joking says:

same everywhere...

just in case you thought this was an unusual situation. consider this, from the same week, but a different Canadian city. Police are police wherever they are. They are just a little less reported on or better observed. Remember, they exist to keep those in positions of wealth and power in position.

Now this guy was obviously a terrorist.
https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2016/10/31/montreal-police-spied-on-la-presse-journalist.html

Please note — it is all completely legal and above-board. This is Canada. You may be on a downhill slope, but we’ve been living in a feudal democracy for 150 years.

BernardoVerda says:

I think that the paranoia in this thread has gotten a little out of hand.

What the police are doing here is perfectly reasonable. If one expects them to join the 21st century, anyways. None of this can be characterized as an abuse of power

Where there is legitimate concern is the question of what else might be done with all this data (a.k.a personal information), how long it will be retained, etc.

The actions of law enforcement here are reasonable and legitimate; but the concerns about where this sort of thing might lead are legitimate as well.

This might be an excellent opportunity for general discussion and development of appropriate policy by the law enforcement agencies and the general public — perhaps even the legislatures.

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