Canadian Police Use Cell Tower Dumps To Text 7,500 Possible Murder Witnesses

from the new-phone-who-dis dept

Every so often, government entities are efficient despite themselves.

In a move they're describing as "extraordinary" and "unprecedented," Ontario Provincial Police will send text messages to about 7,500 people on Thursday to ask for information about an unsolved homicide.

Investigators are calling it a "digital canvass" — the high-tech equivalent of knocking on thousands of doors for information.

The police are utilizing "dumps" from cell towers in the area to obtain these phone numbers. And that's all they've obtained, apparently. Using the list of connected phones in the area at the time of the murder, the police are sending text messages asking recipients to fill out a website questionnaire to help police find the killer.

As much as this might seem like an intrusion, it's probably preferable to the alternative: sending out dozens of officers to question potentially thousands of witnesses. Obviously, it works out well for the police. But it also works out for citizens. Nothing obliges anyone to respond to the unsolicited texts and answering a few questions on a website is far less annoying than being questioned at home by officers peeking through open doors to see if they can spot anything resembling indicia of criminal activity. Why make the entire day a waste? Why not make a few ancillary arrests while investigating an unrelated crime?

Unfortunately, it appears ignoring the message (or sending back "UNSUBSCRIBE") isn't going to keep the cops from using your phone for their communications.

Investigators will also consider calling the numbers of people who don't respond voluntarily, but they would be required to obtain another court order to do so.

The other troubling aspect is that the police obviously have no interest in destroying the phone data they've collected. It appears this will be held onto until the investigation is closed, even though the majority of the harvested numbers -- if not all of them -- will have zero relevance to the investigation other than their proximity to the crime scene.

The police have stressed that responses are completely voluntary, but the plans for follow-up calls suggest the opposite. On the plus side, if someone doesn't want to speak to a cop, getting removed from the list is as simple as filling out a few questions on a website. No details were provided as to how much personal information respondents will have to turn over, though, so this exercise in government efficiency could become just another data-harvesting method. If not subjected to strict controls, any names collected could be run through criminal record databases in hopes of finding active warrants or unpaid fines. If so, it will be tempting to handle more investigations through tower dumps, text messages, and website questionnaires -- what with all the extra arrests and revenue generation that may result from bulk texting.

Filed Under: canada, investigation, murder, ontario, ontario provincial police, police, privacy, texting, tower dump, witnesses


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  1. icon
    Anon E. Mous (profile), 1 Nov 2016 @ 12:38pm

    "The police have stressed that responses are completely voluntary, "


    So the Police are planning to text all of the 7500 numbers to ask if they know anything about a crime taking place in this specific area?

    So what is there to say that the police havent scanned all these phone numbers with their databases to get subscriber info and then used that information to query any CPIC entries for criminal history with the subscriber info?

    The Police are going to send out a text message to those who nenevr consented to reciev this information on this crime? How mnay of those mobile phone numbers were people passing thru? How mnay are of people who live there? How mnay are people who just haoppened to be there on the given time period?

    This is a huge fishing expedition and I would bet is goimng to freak some of the recipients of this text message out, some people dont follow the news and may no nothing about the crime that took place if at all.

    I can imagine the panicked phone calls the Police will get from some mobile phone subscriber about this message they recieved wondering WTF and why am I getting this.

    The fact that the cop gobbled up all this cell tower information tells me they already suspected that the person or persons who committed the crime may have had a cell phone on and that they already looked thru the subscriber information of each number and cross referenced it with CPIC for criminal records with the subscriber name

    This is a huge privacy issue in my opinion and one that should not be allowed, the fact that this will set a precident is even worse. The fact that the cops gathered up 7500 mobile numbers is bad enough, the fact that they can use this incedent and there blasting out a text message opens the door to further "needs" when a crime has occured to hoover up cell tower info, comb thru it and then point to this case to do the same thing over and over again.

    This is the start of a very very slippery slope and I would be dollars to donuts that the Police are not telling everything about what they did with the mobile numbers from the cell tower dump that day, like if they crossed referenced them with CPIC.

    This is another reason why the Governmebnt needs to enact and upgrade legislation as to why cellular service providers should be treating their customers information with more privacy and how any movements of a person cell phone and what towers it connects to should be regarded as private and a warrant should be needed to obtain it.

    No cellular customer I doubt would want their information turned over without a fight from their cellular service provider without a warrant the fact that cops can hoover up 7500 peoples number without the judge or cellular provider having a WTF moment just shows you how eroded our rights are becoming when it comes to privacy

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