Reverse Warrant For Cell Site Location Info Results In Wrong Man Being Jailed

from the first-but-certainly-not-the-last dept

Reverse warrants are the new regular warrants. Ever since law enforcement discovered most Americans carry tracking devices with them 24/7, they’ve been approaching cellphone providers with warrants targeting geographic areas rather than people.

When a crime has been committed but cops don’t have any suspects, they ask Google and others to canvass the area for them. Officers hand providers a geofence and ask for everyone who wandered into the selected area during a certain timeframe. Once cops have everyone, they start looking for someone.

It seems weird but it’s really not all that different than sending officers out to areas around crime scenes to ask anyone if they’ve seen anything. The difference here is cops are getting info about people’s movements in an area when they’re not suspected of any criminal activity. In addition, the areas covered by warrants often include high-traffic areas like businesses and multi-family housing, increasing the chance cops are going to zero in on the wrong suspect simply because someone lives or works near a crime scene.

That’s exactly what happened in Phoenix, Arizona. Detectives investigating a shooting handed a reverse warrant to Google. This data was used to arrest the wrong person, as Jennifer Valentino-DeVries reports for the New York Times.

The police told the suspect, Jorge Molina, they had data tracking his phone to the site where a man was shot nine months earlier. They had made the discovery after obtaining a search warrant that required Google to provide information on all devices it recorded near the killing, potentially capturing the whereabouts of anyone in the area.


But after he spent nearly a week in jail, the case against Mr. Molina fell apart as investigators learned new information and released him. Last month, the police arrested another man: his mother’s ex-boyfriend, who had sometimes used Mr. Molina’s car.

Police like the new tool, but acknowledge it has its limits. First, there’s a lot of junk data to sort through, and not all investigators have the training necessary to make sense of these quasi-tower dumps. But that hasn’t stopped them from using this option with increasing frequency. Google — which holds up to ten years of location data in a massive database referred to by employees as the “Sensorvault” — is now receiving up to 180 requests a week for mass location data.

Prosecutors seem cautious about the tool as well, which is a good sign. But considering what happened to Jorge Molina, this statement seems a bit too optimistic.

“It doesn’t pop out the answer like a ticker tape, saying this guy’s guilty,” said Gary Ernsdorff, a senior prosecutor in Washington State who has worked on several cases involving these warrants. Potential suspects must still be fully investigated, he added. “We’re not going to charge anybody just because Google said they were there.”

Well, maybe Ernsdorff won’t. But it appears others will. The more law enforcement shoots first and asks questions later, the more often it’s going to end up putting the wrong person behind bars. Like any other bulk collection, the potential to reach the wrong conclusion while sorting through haystacks is omnipresent. If Google’s responding to tens of thousands of requests a year for bulk location data, Jorge Molina’s story isn’t going to remain an outlier for long. Certainly the tool has proven useful in other cases, but the sheer number of requests suggests law enforcement isn’t using this tool cautiously. That’s bad news for everyone carrying a cellphone.

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Comments on “Reverse Warrant For Cell Site Location Info Results In Wrong Man Being Jailed”

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Shufflepants (profile) says:

Re: Re: Hard

It is, at least a tiny bit. There’s no real reason to keep that kind of data for up to 10 years. And even if they wanted to keep that data for those time frames in order to use in training AI systems on, it could be anonymized after a certain point. It could also be made so that the retention of this data by google was not a condition of using any feature or service and the retention made explicitly and separately opt-in.

But personally, I’m just glad that police are actually having to get warrants for this data. It would be MUCH more Google’s fault if they were just handing everything over to the cops voluntarily without warrants like how some hotels have been doing.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

But they saw this tech used on CSI and it spit out the answer in the first 5 minutes, so it must work.

Its a pity they no longer feel they need to do the job, they just wait for tech to hand them the answer.

Perhaps we need to require refresher courses on investigation, FSM they need refresher courses in how NOT to violate civil rights, how NOT to panic because the driver is black…

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

This isn't a bug, but a feature.

Considering how difficult it is so easy to convict yet so difficult to challenge a conviction, this will fill our private prisons with more warm bodies, hence fuels the industry!

Our legal system (especially our DAs) don’t care about whether you’re guilty. They care about whether you’re convicted After that, you serve their purpose, whether innocent or guilty.

Anonymous Coward says:

Certainly the tool has proven useful in other cases, but the sheer number of requests suggests law enforcement isn’t using this tool cautiously.

That’s not necessarily true, and arguably is contraindicated by this story. They are now using the tool 180 times per week. They’ve screwed up at least once that we know of. Let’s assume that they’re really good at concealing their screwups and that we only hear about 5% of the cases where they jail an innocent bystander. That’s still only 20 screwups out of thousands of reverse warrant requests. That’s not cautious enough when innocent people’s freedom is on the line, but it is still a very low error rate. To me, they are using it cautiously if they try not to let the data lead them to improper official actions (arrests, detentions, surveillance); merely dumping the data and then not using it to harass anyone is not incautious use.

Kitsune106 says:

Re: I still thought

We believedin better that 10 guilty go free then 1 innocent suffer. When did judge’s dredd’s phuilsophy of better 10 inncoent suffer then 1 guilty go free, and from warhammer 40k, "A plea of innocent is guilty of wasting my time" that seems to occur?

mind, given they are working with the worst of the worst, and their training, can see why they percieve reality this way.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: I still thought

We believed in better that 10 guilty go free then 1 innocent suffer. When did judge’s dredd’s philosophy of better 10 innocent suffer then 1 guilty go free, and from warhammer 40k, "A plea of innocent is guilty of wasting my time" that seems to occur?

When prosecutors found they could coerce guilty pleas from the indigent innocent and thus close cases, improving their "tough on crime" appearance.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Better ten guilty go free than to convict an innocent man

Blackstone’s ratio.

But this ratio is an ideal set for the creation of a justice system. When the system itself wrongfully convicts, that is an indictment of the failure of the system

Our current problem in the US is an epidemic of perverse incentives. Our police, DAs and judges are rewarded for convictions not crimes accurately solved and not suspects correctly adjudicated. We have no means by which to detect when the first is not one of the latter two, and so a lot of innocent people get convicted, often by being extorted into confession.

But we also regard our inmates as if they were the worst of the worst, and are deserving neither human rights nor to even be treated humanely.

And that is an indictment of our society, that we are not just happy to put alleged criminals into a living Hell, but are eager to do so.

To be fair, this is a problem not unique to the United States, and every civilized country has a history of cruel, disproportionate punishment (and little to no effort toward actual rehabilitation) but that the US does as well is a counterargument to American exceptionalism. We’re not just unexceptional, but have the highest incarceration rates in the world, and really horrific dungeons in which we keep our outcasts.

Anonymous Coward says:

This case actually seems more like the inevitable false positive to me, considering who they later arrested.

Essentially, Google said "I think I saw someone in the area at the time in question. They had this phone."

And the PD looked into it and found that hey, here’s this guy with no alibi who was supposedly there and likely has motive. They arrest him, and keep on looking for evidence.

Eventually they discover that it was some other guy who used his car, they release their prime suspect and arrest their new prime suspect.

Surely this kind of thing happens all the time, absent the location data search?

This is definitely something for police to be aware of going forward, but it seems like they did the right thing in this case, even if they may not do the right thing in future cases and go in guns blazing when they’ve got the wrong phone/person. But that would then be a procedural thing those police are doing wrong, and nothing to do with how they identified the potential culprit.

I started reading this article anticipating that they were going to be found holding location data on a large area for fishing expeditions, or for flagging someone totally unrelated to the incident and ignoring the other evidence. I’m much happier with the actual outcome (although I’m sure Jorge wasn’t).

Anonymous Coward says:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

How does a reverse warrant meet the standards spelled out in the last part of the 4th Amendment?

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

This begs for a phone service that conceals one's location.

I’ve recently started using a service that relays SMS messages to my phone by internet to be sent out. My intention was to facilitate sustaining communication when using the tablet.

But if I turned off my tablet location services, then I’d be able to travel about and still SMS while my phone is at home, so long as I am at a wifi hotspot.

So imagine our mystery thriller heister who extends all services so they relay to his phone though one or two VPN tunnels (tab-to-net, phone-to-net) so that his phone is doing all his messaging and stuff — from his wife’s purse or best friend’s car or whatever.

Also he’s smart enough to change the MAC addy of his tablet before and after a heist. That’s not all that hard to do.

Have we established reasonable doubt yet?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: This begs for a phone service that conceals one's location.

I’m still waiting for the app that prevents your phone from connecting to any cell site that isn’t well-known or, optionally, that the user approves. Mostly this would defeat the mobile cell simulators/forwarders used by law bastardization agencies but it could also let the user prevent location data except when actively using one’s phone.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: This begs for a phone service that conceals one's locati

Two things to try:

  • If not actively using the phone, enable Airplane mode.
  • Turn off all fallbacks if possible. Eg., if you have a 4G phone, turn off all pre-4G service. (Some of those Stingrays used to force people to 2G because of better security in the newer standards.)
That One Guy (profile) says:

Uh, no?

It seems weird but it’s really not all that different than sending officers out to areas around crime scenes to ask anyone if they’ve seen anything.

No, it really isn’t. In the ‘sending officers out to ask question’ they need to narrow down the scope, both in how large an area to canvas and what they are looking for, everyone knows it’s happening, and there’s a chance to object.

With a cell site location dump everyone in the area, an area limited only by what they are willing to ask for and get a judge to sign off on, has their movements tracked for whatever time period was asked for, people only find out about the search after it’s taken place(potentially only finding out at the time they’re arrested), and it’s only after they’ve grabbed everything that they start narrowing it down.

A search/questioning that you are aware of and can choose whether or not to involve yourself in is very different than one that you have no choice as to whether or not you’re involved, and that you only find out about after it’s already taken place(assuming you even do find out about it, how many of those who are being unwittingly tracked are ever told about it?).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Uh, no?

have you heard of cameras? it’s been possible to retroactively canvas an area without sending anyone in or alerting the people present for a long time. it took more manpower to identify suspects from the footage, but with facial recognition that’s not necessarily the case anymore either
cops just need to remember that a) being near a crime scene isn’t enough evidence to declare you guilty and b) a phone registered to your name being located to a crime scene doesn’t mean YOU were there, both because location data isn’t necessarily accurate and because phones aren’t grafted to their owners

Anonymous Coward says:


Certainly the tool has proven useful in other cases,

Yes, I’m sure that these general warrants have proven very useful.

It’s a shame that *all general warrants are unconstitutional", then, eh?

The best analogy for this is police rousting an entire block and searching every house for somebody who fled into the area. Which is exactly what the particularity requirement is supposed to prevent.

This does not qualify as "particularly describing the places to be searched".

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Criminals with cellphones

Terrorists and anarchists who know they’re going to engage in subversive activities will use a burner phone (a pre-paid disposable phone) if they need one, and discard it once on the escape path.

This method only works for spontaneous or impulsive perps or ones that don’t yet know they’re criminal, say someone marked by a corrupt official that needs to be disappeared.

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