Feds Also Using 'Reverse Warrants' To Gather Location/Identifying Info On Thousands Of Non-Suspects

from the just-google-it dept

Because nearly everyone carries a tracking device on their person these days, it’s become a whole lot easier for the government to find out where everybody’s been. It’s TinEye but for people, and it appears to be a new go-to tool for law enforcement. What used to be officers canvassing the area where a crime took place is now a warrant sent to Google to obtain location data and identifying info for all people and devices in the area.

These so-called “reverse warrants” first started coming to light earlier this year. The Raleigh Police Department (NC) was serving warrants to Google in hopes of figuring out who to suspect of committing crimes, rather than having a suspect in mind and working forward from there. The warrants were of the “general” variety, guaranteed to give the RPD location/identifying info of hundreds of non-suspects who just happened to be in the area. There’s some evidence Google has pushed back against these warrants, but it hasn’t been enough to deter law enforcement from continuing to use Google as one-stop shopping to bulk location/identifying info.

This practice isn’t limited to the local boys. Thomas Brewster of Forbes has obtained a warrant [PDF] showing the FBI is doing the same thing.

The most recent order on Google, unearthed by Forbes earlier this week, came from the FBI in Henrico, Virginia. They went to Google after four separate robberies in which unidentified, armed individuals entered and stole from the same Dollar Tree store between March and September this year. The manager of the Dollar Tree was also robbed at gunpoint while dropping off money at a Wells Fargo night-deposit box located just down the road from the store.

The warrant asks for location histories held by Google for anyone within three separate areas—including regions around the Dollar Tree store and the Wells Fargo address—during the times and days the five robberies took place. The FBI also wanted identifying information of Google account holders in those areas, two of which had a 375-meter radius. The other had a 300-meter radius.

Since Dollar Tree stores are never found thousands of feet away from other businesses and residences, the information demanded of Google would include hundreds or thousands of innocent people who live or work near the targeted store.

This isn’t the way warrants work. Or, at least, this isn’t how they’re supposed to work. Unfortunately, the FBI’s stated probable cause for demanding this info isn’t attached to the document Forbes obtained, so it’s unclear how the FBI talked a judge into signing off on this. What the returned warrant does show is no records were returned, suggesting Google is pushing back against broad requests for data that appear to be unsupported by probable cause.

While this may be the digital equivalent of canvassing nearby businesses and residences to search for suspects, these orders make compliance compulsory by eliminating the citizenry. It appears the government believes the combination of warrants and third-party data makes gathering info on hundreds or thousands of non-suspects constitutional. The FBI’s warrant also came with an indefinite gag order, so no one included in the search radius had any idea federal law enforcement wanted to know who they were or where they’d been.

This search tactic will continue to be deployed until a court puts an end to it. Without more data, it’s hard to say how often magistrates approve or reject these reverse warrants. All we know is some warrants have been approved. And in some cases, Google has refused to provide the data. I’m sure law enforcement knows these demands for data aren’t completely constitutional, which may be why we haven’t seen any agency bring Google to court for refusing to comply. Additional judicial scrutiny isn’t going to do these warrants any favors.

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Comments on “Feds Also Using 'Reverse Warrants' To Gather Location/Identifying Info On Thousands Of Non-Suspects”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

You are obviously guilty now… if you don’t have a cell phone advertising your whereabouts then you are obviously the person we are looking for… no “innocent” person has anything to hide.

The more and more this continues the more you will be literally required to participate or become a criminal.

JoeCool (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I hear ya. I never wanted a cell phone to begin with, but eventually had to get one. It’s cheaper than a land line these days. I just never take it anywhere I go – with two exceptions: if I’m going on a long trip (really rare), or if I need to go to the hospital/local physician (pretty rare), I’ll take the phone. Otherwise, it sits on my desk 24/7.

So I pretty much treat it like a land line 99.99% of the time.

Parr Forkorse says:

"Pen register" data. Throw away your phone, then.

If this new data source makes police work easier and more efficient, why are you against the "way teh internets are sposed to work"?

It’s okay so long as gov’t NON-prosecutes the innocent. That’s the way it works. Gov’t collects all the facts it can in EVERY case. Never know when one is crucial.

Why is it good if this freely-given-away data is held by a corporation, and bad if the gov’t gets it? You’re self-contradictory. A true libertarian recognizes that corporations are evil, abusive, and tyrannical TOO, they’re no good alternative to gov’t.

Oh, and your credit to Google for supposedly fighting this is just transparent shilling. You don’t know that Google opposed it at all, just assert.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

….Where is our privacy? Does it exist anymore?…
I’ve watched and listened and have witnessed this government being usurped and corroded for more than five decades. They have wanted to get into everybody’s bedroom for such a long time to spy on people for who knows what nefarious reasons. I’ve seen the technological advances year after year allowing them to do just that.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Burners are still in vogue yes?

Pro-criminals and terrorists still use short-term disposable burners, yes? So this kind of reverse-warrant-thing is probably useless for any crime that might actually warrant Google spilling its beans.


I don’t know, when I think about crime and active resistance (for purposes of fiction-writing, of course) I tend to consider how the culprit covers his tracks and vanishes into air (or implicates someone else). Maybe I’m overestimating our criminal element.

So What.... says:

Its legit...get over it

This is totally a legit ask. The “reverse warrant” concept is just BS. Cops serve warrants on every industry and commerical organization you can think of that are general like this. Marriott gets them..give us every name of every one that stayed in your hotels that are near these areas…which turn out to be areas that had similar crimes committed. Or another good one….give us the names of everyone that rented a van and never returned it. That one helped with Oklahoma and the first WTC bombing… Were those warrants unconstitutional? Of course not. Get over it. Investigations don’t have to miraculously start with a suspect/person and proceed in a line. Almost all are scattershot hoping something comes back and a non-linear patchwork of events gets put together as a conviction.

I do agree that the gag order is not legal and should be stopped. Thats the same bullshit as mational security letters….

Red Fummoxed says:

Re: Its legit...get over it

It is not legit. It is an unreasonable search of people unconnected to the crime under investigation.

The whole purpose of a warrant is to make sure law enforcement adheres to the rules. This is effectively a warrant for perhaps thousands of people and is open to abuse.

It also opens people up to arrest for crimes they didn’t commit just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. GPS can be wildly inaccurate, and there is plenty of room for someone to be picking up a pack of smokes at the party store at the other end of the strip mall from the Dollar General.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: General warrants

General warrants are supposed to be illegal. Warrants are supposed to be very specific, and other crimes discovered during that search are supposed to be unprosecutable without an additional (non-retroactive) warrant.

It is a perversion of the justice system that warrants have become generalized, just as it is a perversion of justice that a traffic stop can be used to search or identify a passenger.

This is a dissolution of justice in the favor of law enforcement as is part of the pavement of our road into becoming a police state.

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