Feds Used A 'Reverse' Warrant To Try To Track Down Bank Robbers In Wisconsin

from the doesn't-appear-to-have-worked dept

Reverse warrants are the new tech-related toy law enforcement is experimenting with. Oddly, a lot of what’s come to light so far originates in the Midwest, an area not exactly known for early adoption. Outside of the NYPD and feds confirming they use warrants to seek a list of possible suspects (rather than targeting any specific suspect), most reporting has covered deployments by law enforcement agencies in Minnesota.

We can add Wisconsin to the list of areas where cops are working backwards to suspects by using the copious amount of GPS data hoovered up by Google and others. Russell Brandom of The Verge has more details:

[P]olice and federal agents have struggled to track down the bank robbers. Local media sent out pictures from the bank’s security cameras, but it produced no leads. Finally, police hit on a more aggressive strategy: ask Google to track down the bank robbers’ phones.

In November, agents served Google with a search warrant, asking for data that would identify any Google user who had been within 100 feet of the bank during a half-hour block of time around the robbery. They were looking for the two men who had gone into the bank, as well as the driver who dropped off and picked up the crew, and would potentially be caught up in the same dragnet. It was an aggressive technique, scooping up every Android phone in the area and trusting police to find the right suspects in the mess of resulting data. But the court found it entirely legal, and it was returned as executed shortly after.

The warrant [PDF] was requested by a federal agent. This doesn’t rule out the use of reverse warrants by local law enforcement, but this request originated at the federal level. The feds are involved in almost every bank robbery, so the appearance of federal officers here isn’t a surprise.

Nor is the use of the reverse dragnet. In this case, the submitted geofence was far more constrained than some we’ve seen in other cases. But considering how many people go into (or near) banks for completely innocent reasons, the GPS data/phone info of hundreds of non-bank robbers ended up in the hands of the feds. It’s up to investigators to sort through the data for possible suspects and they can make mistakes. The more data investigators get, the less likely it is they’ll find who they’re looking for and the more likely it is they’ll mistake innocent people in heavily-trafficked areas for criminals.

Right now, it’s just another tool for law enforcement to use. But it’s one that inverts the normal expectations of warrant procurement. Instead of targeting an individual or place, the warrants allow cops to search Google’s data stores for information about anyone who wandered into a targeted area during a certain time period. This shouldn’t be acceptable but there’s no record of any court rejecting these broad demands for data about thousands of people no one suspects of committing crimes. Until a court steps up to shut these down, their use will continue to escalate. The problems already seen in limited use will escalate right along with them. That’s bad news for cell phone users, which at this point is pretty much everybody.

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Comments on “Feds Used A 'Reverse' Warrant To Try To Track Down Bank Robbers In Wisconsin”

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Anonymous Coward says:

One might suggest that the midwest is seeing the most "innovation" in this area because they’ve got little enough noise to make weeding through it to the signal worthwhile.

Perform the same search in a more built-up area, with multiple times as many people per phone cell, and you’ll soon generate a massive bucket of absolutely useless noise, with no hope of slogging through all of it to the signal.

Max says:

Considering how many times I’ve read about exactly this scenario already, are bank robbers over there still taking their widely-known-to-leave-a-location-trail cell phones when they "go to work"? Why the heck aren’t they using small CB radios with a tiny headset instead or something…? And no, "because they’re stooopid" doesn’t cut it – that’s not how it works; this isn’t any more complicated than the notion of a "burner phone" and they seem grasp that one just fine…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The reason is that it is illegal to do a search like this. For a warrant you have to name the person you are looking for or very specific information, this is the opposite of that where you are questioning literally everyone and then trying to separate out the useful from the useless. Warrants have to meet very exacting standards or any information used from them is thrown out. These criminals could get their entire conviction overturned based on the unconstitutional nature of these searches and it will be the right thing to do.

Sharur says:

Re: Re: Re:

Is this actually illegal or unconstitutional?; I don’t think so, nor that this is a "reverse warrant" at all. It bears watching, certainly, due to the mass surveillance direction that law enforcement is headed in, but I don’t think this is new or a (legal) problem.

A warrant is served to the possessor of evidence, not necessarily the suspect of a crime.

A warrant could completely legally be served to, say, a ferry where a crime was committed for their passenger manifest, which would likewise gain a massive list of people who were there, many of theme innocently and uninvolved. It would be more likely for the ferry to just give the manifest to the investigators in such a case, but they could get a warrant for it if need be.

GS (profile) says:

So here’s the $50,000 question. How do the cops know that the bank robbers were either Google/Android users or even had cell phones on them at all? Perhaps they are Apple users. Perhaps they didn’t have any cell phone on them at all. Yet another fishing expedition that infringes on people’s rights and resulted in no actionable intelligence.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"How do the cops know that the bank robbers were either Google/Android users or even had cell phones on them at all? Perhaps they are Apple users. Perhaps they didn’t have any cell phone on them at all."

They don’t. But, given that the majority of people do usually carry a mobile phone, Android has the majority share of the mobile market, and even iPhone users often have at least one Google app installed, it’s a logical conclusion that there’s a good chance of Google having some relevant data.

I’m not saying I agree with them doing this, and it is an obvious fishing expedition, but if they’re going to do this then Google a logical first target.

urza9814 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

"Android has the majority share of the mobile market"

Globally, sure. But not in the USA. And they’re not likely to be turning up too many Chinese citizens in this kind of search so the market share over there isn’t really relevant.


Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Today's ZOMBIE, only 2 real gaps, but nearing 14 years old!

Yes, supposedly has kept track of account / password because so "engaged" with the site that has made an average of 7 comments per year, though rare since 2015.

As typical, name changes, no less than FIVE — didn’t know how to spell "pseudo"!

Believe this is now the oldest "account" at all "active". You should "dig him up" and give a birthday party, Maz.

GS or Falindraun or PseudoDragon (2007) or PsuedoDragon or michael (once 2005): 101 (7), 16 mo gap, to 2015 1st page; 26 mo gap 2007; 17 Nov 2005


Web-site given just once: http://www.theshadowrun.proboards7.com/

Anonymous Coward says:

Reverse Warrant

Every bank robber know to turn the cell phone off or leave it somewhere else, right?
So the logic here is everyone in the area with a cell phone is eliminated as a suspect, then they just cross reference it with licence plate reader data and facial recognition database hits for the area, boom, easy pizi you got the crooks.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: It sucks but

It really isn’t much different than requesting all the video camera footage in an area around a crime scene.

It’s very different. With a cameras, cops don’t get any personal information other than pictures—no names, phone numbers, addresses. The images have context: they can see whether you match a description, whether you went near the bank or stayed on the opposite sidewalk, etc. So, they need to actually do some work, to gain probable cause or at least reasonable suspiscion, to build a suspect list. Whereas a computer can just spit out hundreds of names and addresses, mostly of innocent people.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: It sucks but

Yeah, they could … let’s stick to the PHONE, since actual people don’t ping the cell towers.
That is, they could tell what phone are present by looking at the security footage, but it’s a lot harder to make out what people are carrying.
Just because they see my phone on the footage, doesn’t mean I was there.

I’m sure it’s obvious to most of the readers here, but that’s the problem with data points based of things like, license plates, IP addresses or anything that can be separated from your person (I’m thinking ‘without harm).
These data points are good enough for stalkers and advertisers, but certainly not as evidence of presence (which usually ends up as somekinda ‘smoking gun’ in criminal cases)

ECA (profile) says:

This shows the ability of cellphones.

I didnt know that the GPS in your phone keeps a FILE of your locations..
Or that its ALWAYS watching you and sending DATA..
No wonder our phones get FREE DATA…(wonder if we are subsidizing that)
AND why Google? Why not the Cellphone controlling Cellphone corps?
And as has been mentioned BEFORE, we had allot of Hardwired Phone laws and regs.. where did they go? CELLPHONES DONT HAVE MANY PROTECTIONS..

But for al the tech there are also TRICKS that to many dont understand, THAT they can do.
Supposedly, there is a person in Canada can will remove Unneeded/unwanted options in your phone.
Allittle Aluminum foil is a strange thing. And even truckers can tell you this trick(Metal can over the GPS).

The Difficulty here is IDIOTS… thinking that your cellphone is your friend. If you need to talk SHORT RANGE, get a Kids walkie talkie.(not the nice ones that can send a signal 36 miles). LEAVE the phone at home/throw it away/get a throw away phone for the Situation…

Im waiting for Cellphone to be Pinged every 5-10 minutes to track and trace Everyone..its not hard. Or that our phones Need to ping out, to cell towers ALL the time(which I think they do).

Who here understands What tech can do? If there is a situation!! do you think they have figured out that they can Monitor all cellphones in the area(turn on the mic, remotely, and not let the person know) And isolate the signal they need, and listen to everyone in the bank/… Its NOT HARD.

Anonymous Coward says:

Still a fishing expedition no matter how you slice it. Who even found it legal in the first place? I have a hard time believing a judge with working neurons and even a basic cursory knowledge of its job as judge would find a fishing expedition legal when the whole point of warrants is to prevent fishing expeditions in the first place. If calling it a reverse warrant is all it takes to fool those judges… I take a very dim view of their ability to be judges at all.

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