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.

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Comments on “Cops Wanting To Track Movements Of Hundreds Of People Are Turning To Google For Location Records”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Clarify: concerned Google has info or worried that police

will be able to get it?

I’ve been railing here for years about the danger that Google collecting information poses. I’ve several times pointed out that that Google has enough for probable cause on many of you pirates; MPAA / RIAA will at some point get access to it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Clarify: concerned Google has info or worried that police

So it’s a hoot that Techdirt is now starting to grasp that Google’s hoard of info is an intrinsic danger.

Or are you? Still okay if it’s "just Google’s computers" running "algorithms" and selling "anonymized" profile?

Or is your objection that police might get useful information to solve a crime? Without a warrant, because it’s again just "pen register" data, automatically recorded: be certain that’s how will be decided.

hij (profile) says:

Re: Re: Clarify: concerned Google has info or worried that police

Not sure where you have been. The folks running TechDirt have been stating that what Google (and Facebook) is doing is troublesome, and they have been doing it for years. (Not everyone agrees which is what happens when more than one person is involved in anything.) The problems with the way Google and Facebook operate have been the topics of discussion here and many other places for a long time. Unfortunately, the folks expression shock and dismay about this “new” development have been doing the same thing over the same time period.

Back on topic, even if the Raleigh PD are doing this all above board and using the proper legal channels, it is still important for them to take proper security safeguards with this information. The information obtained is likely important private for many of the bystanders sucked in to this.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Clarify: concerned Google has info or worried that police

“I’ve several times pointed out that that Google has enough for probable cause on many of you pirates”

Yes, you’ve lied about people many, many times. What of it?

“MPAA / RIAA will at some point get access to it.”

They’re welcome to peruse the vinyl/CD/DVD/Blu-ray collection I’ve amassed over the last few decades. They’ll probably be disappointed at how skewed it is toward the earlier part of the collection period and how things have moved from regular purchases of mainstream product to more targeted purchasing of independent material. They’d certainly be disappointed to note a near-zero purchase rate of any movie from a major studio over recent years, in favour of boutique labels and collectors’ items.

But, hopefully it would help them understand that listening you lying assholes like yourself was the wrong move and they should have been listening to their actual consumers instead.

Jim says:


So they don’t have to go to court three times. As per, three carriers. But tech dirt has been railing about the information collected for years. But, I believe because of this, all are fed up with safari search. Just wasn’t relevant for me, same with Bing. Plus, the tapping ability, and the within thirty foot range, and timestamps, and the tracking of directions of view. Plus the camera, etc, etc..

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: 4th Amendment

Hardly. The last thing we need is an American version of that EU “right to be forgotten” nonsense.

Thankfully any attempt by the government in the US to force people to unpublish factual information. Would run smack into the 1st Amendment and fail spectacularly.

(To illustrate the point, see how well California’s law prohibiting IMDb from publishing age info on actors fared against the 1st Amendment.)

Anonymous Coward says:

“The good news is there are warrants in play.”

Yes, it’s always good news to hear that “unconstitutional” warrants are in play.

“…and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

This is an over broad warrant that does not “particularly describe” shit! It’s a fucking unconstitutional dragnet!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

That is not specific and you know it and neither does that logic conform to the spirit or letter of the law. To imply that it does only reveals that you lack critical thinking.

After all… a warrant to “arrest anyone that looks suspicious” is pretty specific using your logic too!

All they are doing is “creating” suspects out of coincidental details and that is not good policing or constitutional. It will just create MORE animosity and distrust of government as it continues.

Your proximity to a crime is neither proof of knowledge, guilt, or witness-ability.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

After all… a warrant to "arrest anyone that looks suspicious" is pretty specific using your logic too!

This isn’t a warrant to arrest or seize anything from the people who were there, it’s a warrant against Google. Is it so different from ordering a local bank to go provide their list of high-value clients? It’s specific, even if it’s unjust and not compatible with the spirit of the law.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: I couldn't be the arsonist. I with my wife at the beautician's..

“What sort of arsonist or murderer takes his own phone with him? A dumb one, I guess?”

How about an obviously absent-minded professor in Berkeley, Eric Clanton, cracking skulls with a bike lock, with his face masked but a cell phone in his pocket. Although no one died in the attacks, he was investigated by Berkeley police’s homicide division who used cellphone data to tie him to the scene of the crime.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Murder and Arson

I guess when I think of crimes such as murder or arson (granted from a fictional crime-drama perspective) I’m thinking this person needs to die or this place needs to burn to the ground so much that I need to act outside the law to get it done. That means going dark and having alibies that even my closest friends and loved ones would believe.

Heck, I might borrow the phone of some rival and leave it around there to throw off the investigators. Though to be fair, that’s overthinking it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Cities could easily set up cellphone/Wifi “tracking” stations so police could log MAC addresses and track everyone, not unlike the way shopping malls already do, and no search warrant is required. Considering the very low cost, it would be surprising that police don’t already do this, such as in areas where drug deals commonly take place.

But then with “security” cameras everywhere, coupled with face-recognition databases under development, as well as ALPRs, it seems that we’re approaching the point when authorities (especially in the UK) can easily track anyone without even needing cellular telephone location data.

Anonymous Coward says:

In the near future, they won’t need to go to Google. All they’ll need to do is use the records from the self-driving car networks to learn where literally everyone is at any time, because the sheer enthusiasm people have for an autonomous car future means that little to no safeguards to prevent authority abuse will be put in place.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Privacy safeguards

Right now that’s the way that our systems develop: a leaky technology gets popular, government agencies and commercial interests start using the leaks. The public feels intruded upon. At this point a couple of things start happening:

One, the issue gets addressed in courts. Most of the time (right now) the courts side with law enforcement, but sometimes they decide that a certain kind of surveillance (e.g. use of stingray cell-phone spoofers) requires a warrant. Also legislators can pass laws declaring such things illegal. Of course the DoJ will fight back.

Two, new services will emerge that intentionally don’t keep records or obfuscate those records and otherwise make it not easy for law enforcement (or commercial interests) to track the end user. In this case, an auto-manufacturer or third-party might provide an anonymous mode for privately owned cars, or a an Uber-style taxi service might delete their records after a transaction is complete. And again, the DoJ will apply pressure to leave trails much the way the FBI wants to be able to decrypt smartphones.

So yeah. Early adopters will, like the early adopters of IoT get screwed by lack of security.

k says:

Police canvas for witnesses as well as suspects.

I don’t like several aspects of this seizure, particularly the lack of notice to people whose records are seized, but there’s some hyperbole in pretending that all of the people in area are going to be treated as perpetrators. While that’s possible, particularly with agencies that are unprofessional or incompetent, many of the people identified by these records will be contacted as potential witnesses, as is common when serious crimes occur and the police don’t think they know who the perpetrator is. Years ago someone was murdered in the apartment complex I then lived in and the local police banged on every door asking every resident if they’d seen anything.

If Google gets the requests: 1) from a warrant, 2) limited to a specific time and place, 3) where a serious crime occurred, and 4) notifies everyone whose records were turned over in a timely fashion, I don’t see any legal objections.

I don’t like the amount of information Google collects, and I went into settings and tried to limit it, and I also force stop maps after I’m done using it, but if the collection is allowed, then law enforcement has every right to get it with a warrant.

Anonymous Coward says:

UPDATE: value of Google and cell phone info proven.

Allegedly helped find the alleged Austin bomber:

Authorities also relied upon store receipts showing suspicious transactions from the person and obtained a search warrant for his Google search history that showed him conducting searches they considered suspicious, the official said. Authorities relied upon cell phone technology to trace the suspect to a hotel in Williamson County, the official said.

However, I’M not for all these corporations keeping it, especially not GOOGLE — but Masnick IS! Just pointing out that you snowflakes are logically forced to advocate it.

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