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. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 Nov 2016 @ 3:36pm

    It would not be a bad idea...

    in a universe where law enforcement hadn't shown so many times how they misuse data or the power they had been given.
    It would not be so bad if proper precautions were taken, since it has the potential to save man hours and find witnesses that would otherwise not have been found.
    Unfortunately too many people distrust law enforcement and their handeling of data.
    Who here believes that they restrict themselves to what is essential?
    Who would belive that this is not just a step towards more data collection and especially if they are successful in finding a good lead?
    Who belives anymore that there will be the someone competent and just watching over that data is not misused? Someone who would have the power to actually do something when it would inevitably happen.

    Law enforcement have gained a deservedly bad reputation for very little gain and thrown this opportunity, to use data in a useful and positive way, away and it will take a long, long time to regain any trust if they ever will.

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