Cops Wanting To Track Movements Of Hundreds Of People Are Turning To Google For Location Records
from the wherein-'probable-cause'-is-defined-as-'maybe-this-might-be-helpful? dept
Police in Raleigh, North Carolina are using Google as a proxy surveillance dragnet. This likely isn’t limited to Raleigh. Google harvests an astounding amount of data from users, but what seems to be of most interest to law enforcement is location info.
In at least four investigations last year – cases of murder, sexual battery and even possible arson at the massive downtown fire in March 2017 – Raleigh police used search warrants to demand Google accounts not of specific suspects, but from any mobile devices that veered too close to the scene of a crime, according to a WRAL News review of court records. These warrants often prevent the technology giant for months from disclosing information about the searches not just to potential suspects, but to any users swept up in the search.
The good news is there are warrants in play. This likely isn’t due to the PD’s interest in “balancing civil rights with public safety,” no matter what the government’s frontmouths have stated to the press. The WRAL report includes a warrant request containing a footnote indicating Google pushed back when the cops showed up with a subpoena demanding info on everyone who had been in the vicinity of a crime scene.
The State of North Carolina maintains that the information sought herein consists entirely of “record[s]” other than the “content of communications…” Such records, require only a showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe the information sought is relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation… Despite this, Google has indicated that it believes a search warrant, and not a court order, is required to obtain the location data sought in this application. Although the Government disagrees with Google’s position, because there is probable cause to believe the information sought herein will contain evidence of the criminal offenses specified in this affidavit, the Government is seeking a search warrant in this case.
But the bad news is that warrants are supposed to be tailored to specific searches related to specific suspects. These warrants are allowing law enforcement to obtain information on dozens or hundreds of people entirely unrelated to the criminal act being investigated, other than their proximity to the crime scene.
At least 19 search warrants issued by law enforcement in Wake County since 2015 targeted specific Google accounts of known suspects, court documents show.
But the March search warrants in the two homicide cases are after something different.
The demands Raleigh police issued for Google data described a 17-acre area that included both homes and businesses. In the Efobi homicide case, the cordon included dozens of units in the Washington Terrace complex near St. Augustine’s University.
Cellphones — and any other devices using Google products that serve up location info — are steady generators of third party records. Conceivably, this puts a wealth of location info only a subpoena’s-length away from the government. It appears Google is pushing back, but that tactic isn’t going to work in every case. The Raleigh PD may have been willing to oblige Google to avoid a fight in court (and the risk of handing over information about how often it approaches third parties for records and what it demands from them), but not every PD making use of Google’s location info stash is going to back down this easily.
Other warrants obtained by WRAL show local law enforcement has collected phone info and location data on thousands of people while investigating such crimes as arson and sexual battery. Despite having no evidence showing the perpetrators of these crimes even had a cellphone in their possession at the time the incidents occurred, agencies approached Google with judge-approved warrants to collect data on people living in nearby apartment units or visiting local businesses near the crime scene.
The government’s attorneys believe everything is perfectly fine because no communications or other content is collected. But defense attorneys and rights advocates point out these warrants approach civil liberties from entirely the wrong direction, making everyone in the area a suspect before trimming down the list. In one way, it’s a lot like canvassing a neighborhood looking for a suspect. But this analogy only holds if everyone officers approach is viewed as a suspect. This isn’t the case in normal, non-Google-based investigations.
After five years as a Wake County prosecutor, Raleigh defense attorney Steven Saad said he’s familiar with police demands for Google account data or cell tower records on a named suspect. But these area-based search warrants were new to him.
“This is almost the opposite technique, where they get a search warrant in the hopes of finding somebody later to follow or investigate,” Saad said. “It’s really hard to say that complies with most of the search warrant or probable cause rules that we’ve got around the country.”
The Wake County District Attorney believes these warrants are solid enough to survive a challenge in court. The government may get its wish. Officers using these to obtain data will likely come out alright, thanks to good faith reliance on approved warrants, but the magistrates approving dragnet collection as an initial investigatory step may have some explaining to do.
The DA says it’s just like watching business surveillance video when investigating a robbery. Lots of non-criminals will be captured on tape and their movements observed by officers. But the comparison fails because, in most cases, the criminal act will be caught on tape, limiting further investigation to the perpetrators seen by officers. In these cases, everyone with a cellphone within a certain distance of crime scene becomes a suspect whose movements are tracked post facto by officers who have no idea — much less actual probable cause to believe — that any of this data actually points to the suspect they’re seeking.
Then there’s the problem of effectiveness. Starting an investigation with a geofence and attempting to turn it into a bottleneck that will result in pursuable suspects doesn’t seem to be working. According to the documents seen by WRAL, only one person has been arrested for any of the crimes in which police approached Google for data on thousands of users. And in that case, the location data law enforcement requested didn’t show up until months after the suspect was charged. It may be there have been more success stories, but routine sealing of documents and warrants tends to make it impossible for anyone outside of the police department to know for sure. But the department knows. And if it has good things to say about this questionable search technique, it hasn’t offered to share them with the rest of the public.