FBI Tried To Get Google To Turn Over Identifying Info On Hundreds Of Phone Owners

from the not-how-the-4th-Amendment-works dept

The US government isn’t supposed to seek general warrants. And US judges aren’t supposed to approve them. The Fourth Amendment requires a showing of probable cause to justify the intrusion by the government into citizens’ lives and property. None of that appears to have happened in this case, brought to us by Thomas Fox-Brewster at Forbes.

Back in March, as it investigated a spate of armed robberies across Portland, Maine, the FBI made an astonishing, unprecedented request of Google. The feds wanted the tech giant to find all users of its services who’d been within the vicinity of at least two of nine of those robberies. They limited the search to within 30-minute timeframes around when the crimes were committed. But the request covered a total space of 45 hectares and could’ve included anyone with an Android or iPhone using Google’s tools, not just the suspect.

This wasn’t just a demand for device IDs. The FBI — as detailed in the warrant request [PDF] — wanted everything Google had on hand.

In addition, for any Google accounts linked to the accounts or identifiers listed in Attachment A by HTTP cookies, recovery email address, or telephone number, the Provider is required to disclose all records or other information regarding the identification of the account, to include full name, physical address, telephone numbers and other identifiers, records of session times and durations, the date on which the account was created, the length of service, the IP address used to register the account, log-in IP addresses associated with session times and dates, account status, alternative email addresses provided during registration, methods of connecting, log files, and means and source of payment (including any credit or bank account number).

This is the sort of rummaging the Constitution is supposed to prevent. It’s understandable the FBI needed some assistance tracking down robbery suspects, but this grab for a wealth of information about 45 hectares of people milling about minding their own business, isn’t. And this sort of thing isn’t limited to the FBI. As was covered here earlier this year, the Raleigh PD did the same thing at least four times during criminal investigations in 2017.

In this case, hundreds of people would have been swept up in the dragnet. Certainly, some post-acquisition data sifting would have occurred to narrow it down to people/devices near the location of robberies when they occurred. But whatever happens after info is obtained cannot be used to justify the original acquisition. This warrant never should have been signed.

If there’s any good news coming out of this, it’s that Google either didn’t hand over the info requested or didn’t have the info requested on hand.

Google was expected to return the information on April 19, but didn’t. The FBI filed a motion to extend the time it had to get the data, which a judge granted. But Google never handed it over, despite another three FBI motions to extend. Though the prosecutor, assistant U.S. attorney Michael Conley, said a fifth motion would be filed if the data didn’t arrive, the government gave up the ghost earlier this month.

A final returned warrant, dated August 6, simply stated: “Google did not provide information responsive to the warrant.”

The reason for this is unknown. Google provided no comment to Forbes and Brewster-Smith points out the company never filed an objection to warrant itself. It’s hard to believe Google didn’t have any of this info on hand — especially considering Google has collected location data even when device users have turned location services off. If nothing else, it should have had some data points on hand. Perhaps there was a lot of discussion behind the scenes between lawyers from both sides that never made it to court but did result in the FBI’s please-don’t-call-it-“general” warrant being denied.

It also may be the FBI didn’t press the issue because it didn’t have much confidence in securing a favorable ruling from a judge higher-placed than the magistrate that signed the warrant request. The last thing the FBI wants is precedent set forbidding this sort of collection effort.

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Companies: google

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Comments on “FBI Tried To Get Google To Turn Over Identifying Info On Hundreds Of Phone Owners”

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Sir Veillance Of The Proles says:

Brave Google! Good Google! Defender of the Constitution!

Either that or it’s a surveillance corporation so closely aligned with the Deep State against citizens that can just flatly ignore FBI and court orders.

Safe to bet every cent you have on latter, but it’s not safe to bet that Google isn’t just the opening stage of total surveillance capitalism.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Brave Google! Good Google! Defender of the Constitution!

It’s any public servant not beholden to the party currently in power.

It’s a term commonly used by the people who want to dismantle government, to refer to government employees who continue to do their jobs diligently while their department is neutered, corrupted, disbanded, or made irrelevant by the executive.

Gorshkov (profile) says:

Re: from the sensationalism dept.

Population density of NYC, for example, is 27,000/sq mile. So in .17 square miles you have 4,590 – assuming nobody moves. Since people DO move, and the time frame is +-15 minutes, you could easily double or triple that.

Now if YOU think that grabbing data on potentially 10,000-15,000 people is no big deal ………….

Canuck says:

Re: From the Mason Wheeler BS Department

Yeah… One hectare is only a 330×330 foot area. In a city, surely only one or two people to be found in there, especially over a 15 minute period of time, right? It’s not like hundreds of cars could traverse that space in 15 minutes. And 45 of those areas? Chicken feed! Inconsequential!

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: from the sensationalism dept.

It is only a 100, no wait 200 mile, zone on the edge of the country where the Constitution can be ignored.
Its maybe only a few people who were caught in the area we wanted, why should they be upset we wanted all of their data?
Its not like there is a history of innocent peoples data being held until they can make it into something criminal.
Its not like they could have done their fscking jobs.
Its not like they did this b/c they want to get people used to the idea that they can,will,do vacuum up all of your data & there are no rules limiting their use once they have it.

Lifted from the EFF…

They know you rang a phone sex service at 2:24 am and spoke for 18 minutes. But they don’t know what you talked about.
They know you called the suicide prevention hotline from the Golden Gate Bridge. But the topic of the call remains a secret.
They know you spoke with an HIV testing service, then your doctor, then your health insurance company in the same hour. But they don’t know what was discussed.
They know you received a call from the local NRA office while it was having a campaign against gun legislation, and then called your senators and congressional representatives immediately after. But the content of those calls remains safe from government intrusion.
They know you called a gynecologist, spoke for a half hour, and then called the local Planned Parenthood’s number later that day. But nobody knows what you spoke about.

But sure a huge net will only let them find the bad people, not expose innocent peoples secrets to law enforcement I mean they never caught them using a database to stalk exlovers, exwives, hot chicks on the road, etc…

Pity we still haven’t learned that making larger haystacks leads to more problems.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: from the sensationalism dept.

BTW, I saw what you did with the units there.

Put them into familiar context, using units of measurement that are actually common in the USA in place of ones that aren’t and appear to have been chosen purely for sensationalistic purposes to make this look a lot bigger and scarier than it actually is?

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Ummm..

Trololololol…wait! It turns out that some cell phones run an operating system made by google! And that operating system talks to google servers all the time! And we just had several reports that google is storing data about your location even when you disable that feature!

So, are you stupid, or just unwilling to engage on the facts?

Tin-Foil-Hat says:

Re: Meanwhile in Canada...

The Canadian police shouldn’t have gotten this information by they aren’t exactly keeping it secret.

The police in the US will not only keep it secret but comb through it to see if they can solve some other crimes without revealing where that evidence came from. As far as law enforcement is concerned we are rhe enemy.

I’ve lived in Canada and for the most part the legal system doesn’t have the ill will towards the public the way it does here. Canada is sill a very nice place to live. For now anyway.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Meanwhile in Canada...

Yes, and then they lie in court by presenting their parallel construction. iirc, one is supposed to tell the truth in court – the whole truth and nothing but the truth – LOL as if they know what the truth is because apparently, according to Rudy G. … the truth is not the truth. Whatever that is supposed to mean.

Are alternative facts allowed in a court of law?

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Are our pro-criminals that dumb?

Suspect was arrested after posting selfies with a weapon & cash form the robbery.
Suspect was arrested after posting video smoking meth.
Suspect was arrested after posting video shot as he fired into a crowd.
Suspect was arrested after complaining to police about the booking photo they posted of him in their manhunt.

I’d go on but the stupid…. it hurts.

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