Google Report Shows 'Reverse Warrants' Are Swiftly Becoming Law Enforcement's Go-To Investigative Tool

from the Pokemon-Go,-but-for-cops dept

Thanks to its never-ending collection of location data, Google has become a prime target for law enforcement investigators. Using so-called “reverse warrants,” investigators ask Google to turn over information for all devices in a geofenced area, with the hope of working their way backward from these data points to actual criminal suspects.

They’re called “warrants” but they can’t possibly be supported by probable cause. Treating everyone in the area of a suspected crime as a criminal suspect until things can be sorted out inverts this concept. And the government isn’t always honest with courts about how many innocent people these “reverse warrants” can ensnare. Fortunately, we’ve seen some courts engage in more active reviews of these requests, which has led to a few notable rejections.

Google has released some details [PDF] on reverse warrants, which show they’re an increasingly-popular option for law enforcement agencies. Zack Whittaker breaks down the data for TechCrunch.

The figures, published Thursday, reveal that Google has received thousands of geofence warrants each quarter since 2018, and at times accounted for about one-quarter of all U.S. warrants that Google receives. The data shows that the vast majority of geofence warrants are obtained by local and state authorities, with federal law enforcement accounting for just 4% of all geofence warrants served on the technology giant.

According to the data, Google received 982 geofence warrants in 2018, 8,396 in 2019 and 11,554 in 2020. But the figures only provide a small glimpse into the volume of warrants received and did not break down how often it pushes back on overly broad requests.

Well, every request could be considered “overly broad,” seeing as the only probable cause used is the presumption that it’s probable Google has the data investigators are looking to obtain. Crimes that occur in heavily trafficked areas or during daylight hours produce the biggest haystacks, increasing the odds of someone being wrongly arrested for literally being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

They’re also overly broad in the sense that they make the assumption that the criminal suspect would be carrying a device utilizing Google location services. And they tend to gloss over the fact that this location data isn’t nearly as accurate as cell site location data, which means there’s just as much of a chance for a false negative as there is for a false positive.

But, if this report is any indication, geofence warrants aren’t going away. It’s up to legislators to change that. And until legislators are willing to ban or restrict use of these warrants, it’s up to the courts to thoroughly vet these requests that burden hundreds of people with a presumption of guilt until the thousands of data points gathered by a third party can exonerate them.

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Comments on “Google Report Shows 'Reverse Warrants' Are Swiftly Becoming Law Enforcement's Go-To Investigative Tool”

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14 Comments
Samuel Abram (profile) says:

The anomalous New York State...

I looked at the PDF, and I found out that the highest percentage of state warrants were in California, Texas, and Florida. No surprise there, as they’re the three most populous states. What I found surprising was that NY State was not #4, but #15! What could be the explanation? Could New Yorkers (as in "citizens of New York City") living so close together be a reason why even the state governments know that reverse warrants are unreliable? Could the Subway have anything to do with it? I’m a New Yorker and even I am perplexed.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: The anomalous New York State...

A proposal in 2019 to block it died in committee. It was A10246.

Reverse search warrants are less reliable when there’s more people caught in the swarm, but simply because it’s so time consuming NYPD don’t have the time to follow each dot. NYC does have a surveillance dragnet though. City cameras + private cameras and a very efficient department that collects such footage from a willing population.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Warrants are supposed to be served on specific people/place/things they have to prove to a Judge that there is evidence supporting the need to search the people/place/things.

The Reverse Warrant lets them get information on everyone within an area around a time & then look to see who might be guilty. Its using technology that isn’t as accurate as people think and violates the privacy of people guilty of nothing more than having been near an area.

(Mental Drift Net engage: Story here on TD about a man who was accused of murder based on a reverse warrant. He didn’t kill the person, but the data let them think they did. They did no other investigation, they had their target & he was guilty. 3 minutes of investigation would have shown that he rode a bicycle, and the path he took was the same each time. He might have passed by the area but there was nothing showing him in or very near the house, but they kept saying he was guilty based on a very wide fishing net that violates the rights of many people because cops didn’t want to bother with doing their job.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

A general search warrant is what most warrants are. It specifies the address or the person subject to the search/arrest and a judge’s signature. It has the full effect of law.

A reverse warrant specifies a general location and tells the tech/telecom provider (e.g: Google) to give the information of all the people that were in the vacinity of that area between a given timeframe. It is not a search warrant in the strictest sense since it doesn’t allow searching of the properties or persons within that area, but instead it’s an investigative tool (i.e: subpoena) that is signed off by a judge and forwarded to the tech/telecom provider. The information that the provider gives to the police can then been used for further investigative purposes, such as finding people of interest.

The problem with reverse location search warrants is they aren’t conclusive and can be incredibly inaccurate. Since GPS location can be spoofed innocent people can be swept up by them. Criminals who aren’t using Google or phones aren’t going to be detected either. It’s another tool in the toolkit, and an extremely controversial one.

sabroni says:

You’re wrong to state that Google’s location data won’t be as good as cell data. A cell will give you a potential radius from the mast and maybe a sector, so you get a banana shape area with the phone somewhere inside it, further from the cell is less accurate.
If a mobile phone is using GPS and sending that location data to Google then Google’s data will be far more accurate than the cell data.
Good article, could do with correcting this technical inaccuracy. Thanks!

Skylos (profile) says:

Wait, you can't ask people in an area?

Treating everyone in the area of a suspected crime as a criminal suspect until things can be sorted out inverts this concept.

so if I was to carry that all the way back to ‘traditional policing’, that would be saying that the police can’t ‘treat as a criminal suspect’ – i.e. interrogating/asking questions of people – any who are in the area of a crime until after they sort things out.

Which they have always done to get clues about who and what and drive other evidence gathering techniques.

"Did you see anything?" STOP TREATING ME A CRIMINAL WITH ALL THIS ASKING OF QUESTIONS

I see this as absolutely no different than interrogating everybody in the club for their take/observations on what happened. The only reason there’s a warrant involved at all is that they can’t get the information by just looking around.

Hell, I’d like to say that constitutionally privacy wise, it really looks as if agents of the state wandering around looking at what people are doing is illegal. They have NO justification to be "investigating" my activities whatsoever. Any observation of my activity without a driven cause to be acquiring information about me is an illegal search of my activities.

I literally have the constitutional right to free movement in my community and the states – second guessing that by observing/hassling/interrupting me is illegal. 😛

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Tanner Andrews (profile) says:

Re: Wait, you can't ask people in an area?

The only reason there’s a warrant involved at all is that they can’t get the information by just looking around

Certainly that is an important difference. What a cop can see by just looking around does not need a warrant. However, to go in your house to nose about does require one because he cannot see inside your house by just looking around.

Even going in the club and asking the patrons what they saw is different. There, you have an identifed group (those who were in a position to see something) and they are free to speak to the cop, or not, as they will.

What Google is getting is what we used to call a general warrant: give us info on everyone whose phone was in the area, whether or not they were actually in position to commit the act under investigation. That is not readily distinguished from the old general warrant to search everyone who passes by such a location.

Skylos (profile) says:

Re: Re: Wait, you can't ask people in an area?

The important part of what I’m saying they actually don’t have the constitutional right to look around at all. BUT – this is just ‘how things are done and always have been and there’s no viable alternative’ so the idea is dismissed as useless.

So lets say that we decide they DO have the affirmative constitutional right (not just expectation of operative viability) to look around. They have the constitutional right to search any public space. They have the right to treat anybody there as suspects and scrutinize their activities. This is in complete accordance with the idea of "I can ask everybody who was on the square about this crime".

There’s the implication in this discussion ‘the police weren’t in the square’. I strenuously disagree. Its public, and they can declare that they were, indeed, digitally in the square. Thus, they completely WERE in the square. Its just that a private company happens to be holding the records of WHO was in the square presently. Their right to interrogate them comes from THE FACT THEY WERE IN THE SQUARE – and in no way must that be interrupted by thee matter of being in possession of some entity like google – hence, the warrant that tells google to give up the information about who was in the square.

Now you could address this by simply requiring that if you want to collect information about who is in the square, you have to relay what you know about who is in the square continually to the virtual policeman who is standing watching – which is PRECISELY what the policeman standing on the courthouse steps is doing – apparently with nobody saying boo about it.

What I’m getting at here is that this kind of case is when you look at it a particular way, drilling into one of the fundamental assumptions that we’ve made about whether or not its appropriate for a policeman to search other people’s activities based merely on their presence physically.

I assert that public observation has been illegal since the establishment of the fourth amendment but has not been seen that way.

But if public observation is not illegal then there is absolutely no reason for it to be illegitimate to have a virtual policeman watching the virtual square.

I assert we can’t reasonably have it both ways. Choose a direction – either we’re subject to search by the LEO, or we’re not. Currently, we’re totally subject to search, and the fact that they let the records reside on google’s servers and later get retrieved by warrant is only a technical arrangement of convenience for the moment – any of the other ways to accomplish the same outcome are just as legal.

Skylos (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Wait, you can't ask people in an area?

That’s a pretty weak argument – yes, most people wouldn’t be able to go interview everybody who was on the square – but there exists people who actually are able to observe everybody there and interview them.

So are we limiting this to ‘a typical ability of a police observer’ or are we limiting it to ‘the best observer memory that could be used as a police observer’? If we only want a typical, then we’d logically have to restrict the particularly capable from the role, which we don’t even measure much less restrict.

The difference here is entirely technical on presumptive grounds. To presume that an observing policeman is not a record keeper is unjustified – he entirely CAN be a record keeper – and there is nothing that states or specifies that he isn’t or can’t be.

To reiterate – this only comes down to a matter of means rather than justification of observation – I assert that the means (using records stored by google which are only stored because the people allow them to be stored at all) is a technical beside-the-point to the legality of ‘valid to review any records of the square’ – whether or not they’re recorded by the police.

After all, we can (if we want) make google’s recording of this data contingent on supplying it to the public/law enforcement record keeping systems – then making it data that’s recorded by the police just like the policeman on the steps had a body cam or just is really really good at remembering who and what.

the police can ask questions of whoever was on the square, which is a public place, and as such has no expectation (apparently) that they right to free movement through the space without being observed by others including law enforcement.

I still think they shouldn’t have the ability to officially observe, its illegal search.

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