Minnesota Judges Spent Only Minutes Approving Warrants Sweeping Up Thousands Of Cellphone Users

from the redefining-bulwark dept

Tony Webster, writing for MPR News, has obtained court documents showing Minneapolis, Minnesota law enforcement agencies are deploying "reverse warrants" in hopes of tying suspects to crime scenes. A normal warrant targets a known object. Reverse warrants are loaded with unknowns -- an attempt to wrangle cell site location info into something that might lead police to a suspect. That's what these agencies are trying to do, but the approved warrants guarantee a sizable number of non-criminals will be swept up in the data haul.

Knowing the Silicon Valley giant held a trove of consumer mobile phone location data, investigators got a Hennepin County judge to sign a "reverse location" search warrant ordering Google to identify the locations of cellphones that had been near the crime scene in Eden Prairie, and near two food markets the victims owned in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The scope of the warrant was so expansive in time and geography that it had the potential to gather data on tens of thousands of Minnesotans.

This new brand of warrant was first spotted last spring. Later that year, it was confirmed the feds were also using reverse warrants. These warrants are becoming more common, urged on by a private company pitching investigative methods and tools to law enforcement agencies.

[Brooklyn Park Deputy Police Chief Mark] Bruley said detectives learned about the potential value of the practice and how to write the warrant applications at an August training seminar held by ZetX, an Arizona-based company that teaches police about cellphone investigations, and sells software called TRAX that generates legal documents and maps cellphone data to assist in analysis. The company holds trainings all across the country.

[...]

The week after detectives attended the ZetX training in the Twin Cities, they wrote up their first three reverse location search warrants. By the next month, they had a dozen, each ordering Google to turn over information on devices located in the vicinity of crimes.

The warrants [PDF] demand Google turn over a bunch of data on every phone that happened to wander into a geofenced area around the time a crime was committed.

This warrant is directed to Google LLC, headquartered at 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway, Mountain View, California, and applies to (1) GPS, WiFi, Bluetooth or cellular sourced location history data generated from devices that reported a location within the geographical region bounded by the following latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates, dates, and times ("Initial Search Parameters")...

[...]

For each location point recorded within the Initial Search Parameters, Google shall produce anonymized information specifying the corresponding unique device ID, timestamp, coordinates, display radius, and data source, if available (the "Anonymized List").

As Webster notes, the warrants likely don't give judges any idea how many people will be swept up in these data requests. The warrants contain GPS coordinates but no map of the area covered. It's unlikely a judge can visualize the area covered just by looking at four coordinates. Judges may be able to enter those points into Google Maps to get some idea how much area is covered, but it doesn't appear any of the judges approached did anything more than briefly browse the warrants before signing them.

Here's how long it took to approve one requested by the Brooklyn Park PD:

No map was provided in the application to illustrate the area or accuracy level to the judge. This warrant was also issued within about 10 minutes of the detective requesting it.

Things moved even faster for Edina investigators:

About four minutes after the detective signed the application — which included no map of the targeted area — the judge approved it.

Webster has provided the maps the police wouldn't, which illustrate exactly how big an area is being covered by these reverse warrants. (Click through for a larger version.)

Given the scope of the area covered and the imprecise nature of location data, each warrant has the potential to generate a ton of false positives -- people who happen to live, work, or travel through these busy areas. If a map had been provided, there's a good chance judges would have taken a little longer considering these requests.

Or not.

Of the 22 reverse location search warrants issued in Hennepin County, only three times did the warrant applications include map demonstrating the geographic area being targeted by the warrant. And yet, the time difference between an officer signing a warrant request, and a judge approving it, was sometimes just a few minutes.

There's not a lot of good news from the law enforcement perspective either. Most of the reverse warrants failed to generate possible suspects. They also failed to generate false positives either, so that's a (very limited) plus. But I don't think a lack of success will deter investigators from seeking these warrants. Reverse warrants allow officers to perform a virtual canvassing of the neighborhood for possible suspects without expending much in the way of time or manpower.

Google appears to be pushing back when requests are excessive. This is all well and good, but Google's a one-stop shop for law enforcement thanks to its expansive data harvesting over the years. The initial pushback should be coming from judges, not the private sector. When it's up to a data-hungry megacorp to provide the first layer of protection for cellphone users' privacy, the judicial system is failing to do its job.

Filed Under: general warrants, hennepin county, location info, minneapolis, police, reverse warrants
Companies: google


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  • icon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 12 Feb 2019 @ 10:44am

    Google may be bad, but they aren't everything

    Then if the perpetrators carried Iphones and had Yahoo email accounts they will never be caught?

    Too bad the police no longer have a realistic concept of investigation. Edina is a fairly well to do area in Minneapolis that I suspect would contain many security cameras. The article doesn't mention whether any other investigative techniques were used, or not, I am merely pointing out that there are other possibilities, even technological ones.

    Then there is that pesky little part of the 4th Amendment:

    Amendment 4 - Search and Seizure. Ratified 12/15/1791.

    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.

    Well they got the place, sort of, but the place includes hundreds if not thousands of home, cars, curtilages, apartments, businesses, etc.. They got the persons or things to be seized by requesting an 'anonymized' list of anyone that shows up as a result. But can that list be truly 'anonymized'? The argument about metadata has gone on for a while, and fairly conclusively shows that mere metadata is significantly identifying. So they are not in fact getting an 'anonymized' list, but a huge list of indirectly, yet still identifiable people. They covered their antics by asking for a step two, where certain profiles would be identified, but it seems the only person fooled by this, was the judge.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      ECA (profile), 12 Feb 2019 @ 12:26pm

      Re: Google may be bad, but they aren't everything

      AND?? A semi smart thief is going to carry what?? A device that can Point him out in a crowd of thousands, with in 3 feet? Then hope he gets a phone call or sends one??

      99% of theft, tends to be a person that has BEEN in the house. (because you dont goto a house you DONT know if they have anything, including alarm systems) A person that has a probability of being on drugs, and needs money. (and the parents/friends/dealers wont give them any drugs) Generally younger.(cause older, repeat offenders know what NOT to do, most times)

      Better off, search for local homes that could of seen something, about that time frame.

      Then there is the obvious..the home owner or children did it.. For tax deductions or because the kids have a problem, and the parents dont know yet..

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 12 Feb 2019 @ 12:40pm

      Re: Google may be bad, but they aren't everything

      The argument about metadata has gone on for a while, and fairly conclusively shows that mere metadata is significantly identifying.

      Anyone who still offers the 'metadata is harmless because you can't identify someone/their actions with it' argument at this point really needs to be told to put up or shut up. Either provide their metadata, all of it, or admit that even they realize what a stupid argument they're making and stop using it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Feb 2019 @ 11:08am

    Nothing to hide, nothing to fear.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    btr1701 (profile), 12 Feb 2019 @ 11:23am

    Reverse warrants allow officers to perform a virtual canvassing of the neighborhood for possible suspects without expending much in the way of time or manpower.

    Why is that bad? I get there may be privacy issues here worthy of discussion, but something that allows the cops to do their job more efficiently with less taxpayer expense is a good thing. I'm not sure why this is listed in Cushing's litany of complaints.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Gary (profile), 12 Feb 2019 @ 11:55am

      Re:

      It's called the constitution, bro. Some folks were really irritate that the bloody lobsterbacks from England would search them at the drop of a tri-cornered hat.
      But due-process is just a hindrance to LEO's, eh mate?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        btr1701 (profile), 12 Feb 2019 @ 12:18pm

        Re: Re:

        It's called the constitution, bro.

        Nothing in the Constitution requires that the police spend as much time and manpower and taxpayer resources solving a crime as possible.

        Dood.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          That One Guy (profile), 12 Feb 2019 @ 12:34pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          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.

          Other than this part, which pretty clearly prohibits general warrants, and requires that if they're going to get a warrant and use it for a search it needs to be specific, rather than 'everything in this general area'-levels of vague? Because if it's going to be watered down that much you might as well just toss that part out entirely.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            btr1701 (profile), 12 Feb 2019 @ 3:26pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            Other than this part, which pretty clearly prohibits general warrants, and requires that if they're going to get a warrant and use it for a search it needs to be specific, rather than 'everything in this general area'-levels of vague?

            I acknowledged there were other issues that make this problematic. I merely wondered why Cushing included "doesn't waste time and manpower" in his list of horribles because that's the one thing about this that seems like it would be a positive.

            (And then Gary the Genius climbed off his surfboard and chimed in with his belief that the Constitution requires police use the most time consuming and resource intensive method possible to solve crimes.)

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • icon
              Gary (profile), 12 Feb 2019 @ 5:55pm

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              (And then Gary the Genius climbed off his surfboard and chimed in with his belief that the Constitution requires police use the most time consuming and resource intensive method possible to solve crimes.)

              Awww. Just pointing out that the British thought it was a great idea to just keep searching until they found something incriminating. Which is Just OK by your standards - because it's the most efficient, right? Best bet is to go door-to-door and search because you are almost sure to find some offense against the crown.

              Is calling me a "Genius" ad hom? :)

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 14 Feb 2019 @ 5:53am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            "...ordering Google to identify the locations of cellphones..."

            I would agree with you if they were seizing anything, but they aren't, so I agree with btr1701, cheap method of canvassing the area without worrying that they smell an odor while at your door.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 12 Feb 2019 @ 3:02pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          No. It sets out a set of rights and responsibilities. Law enforcement is required to ensure them.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Prinny, 13 Feb 2019 @ 8:30am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Hey, don't go stealing my verbal tic, dood! I oughtta sue you for pattymark infringement!

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 12 Feb 2019 @ 12:18pm

      Re:

      Just how long do you think they will keep the data they have collected, and what uses they will put it to, without warrant or oversight, once they have it in their greedy hands?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 12 Feb 2019 @ 12:27pm

      Re:

      I'm not sure why you think that is a "complaint" and not, you know, an explanation of the sentence immediately preceding it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 12 Feb 2019 @ 11:31am

    Hennepin County is quickly becoming a hive of scum and villiany...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 12 Feb 2019 @ 11:41am

      Re:

      In case anyone missed the hidden meaning in TAC's post, Hennepin County is the center of the Prenda Law shenanigans. A short summary https://minnlawyer.com/2018/08/22/paul-hansmeier-pleads-guilty-to-two-fraud-counts/ of some of the saga that mentions Hennepin county a few times.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        TripMN, 12 Feb 2019 @ 2:14pm

        Re: Re:

        I grew up in the area. Hennepin county has long been a hive of scum and villainy... and then there was the crime.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 12 Feb 2019 @ 3:05pm

        Re: Re:

        If that's all Hennepin's got, don't go near West Palm Beach or Orange County. They've got you guys beat on nearly every level.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Hennepin County, 17 Feb 2019 @ 5:25am

      Re: Hennepin CTY

      Mike Freeman has been the Hennepin Cty DA there since forever.

      He is a feckless amoral slob, who keeps the job, because he is connected deeply to the good ol boys and girls club there, which rivals any insider club in the deep south at the heyday of the KKK.

      But in Minnesota, they now have Multi Kulture Kovens and Klubs, and Freeman has deftly been able to bully, blackmail, and harass his way between these factions.

      The police there are notoriously fascist pigs, who celebrate the Nazi past of Nordeast Mpls,and are corrupt to the point of having gang stalked reporters who they cannot control,such as Jessica Miles, and others, Anne Marie Rasmussen, and even Brooke Bass, the former police union lawyer.

      Then, theres the incestuous nature of the lcal FBI burea chief and how they use CVE programs to stalk political dissenters and frame Somalis.

      Freeman is their go-to guy on that too.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Personanongrata, 12 Feb 2019 @ 11:32am

    State of Minnesota, Kangaroo Court of Hennepin County

    Minnesota Judges Spent Only Minutes Approving Warrants Sweeping Up Thousands Of Cellphone Users

    Why did it take kangaroo court jester Phillip Carruthers of Hennepin County Minnesota so long to approve the unconstitutional general warrants?

    Did he misplace his rubber stamp?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Feb 2019 @ 12:05pm

    Speaking of government overreach and cell sites, we haven't heard much of anything about Stingrays in the news lately. Has the government given them up (hahahahahaha) or have they just gone full China and are suppressing any such news?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 12 Feb 2019 @ 12:27pm

    'Constitution limitations', apparently not required knowledge

    I do wonder if the judge would have paused if they had happened to live in the area affected, or if they'd have just rubber stamped it just as quickly. Would the possibility of their phone data being scooped up have changed the outcome any, or would the obedience to authority have led to just as quickly a dismissal of any of those pesky 'constitutional concerns'?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Nathan F (profile), 12 Feb 2019 @ 2:17pm

      Re: 'Constitution limitations', apparently not required knowledg

      The judge might not have been able to tell because the police submitted the request with latitude/longitude borders, not street borders.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 12 Feb 2019 @ 2:21pm

        Re: Re: 'Constitution limitations', apparently not required know

        And he was practicing due diligence by not checking what those lat/long borders were. After all, he had ten minutes, and no option to spend an hour or two, or a day or two checking up on details. Right?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        That One Guy (profile), 13 Feb 2019 @ 5:04am

        Re: Re: 'Constitution limitations', apparently not required know

        ... and? If anything that would make it worse, as the judge would be signing off on a warrant when he didn't even know what it covered.

        If a judge is willing to sign off on a warrant when they don't even know what it covers, they have no business making legally binding decisions that affect other people.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Coyne Tibbets (profile), 12 Feb 2019 @ 6:06pm

    Seems reasonable to me

    Ten minutes seems reasonable to me. I mean, how long should it take for the judge to review the officer's statements that (a) "Someone in Minnesota surely committed this crime," and (b) "If someone in Minnesota didn't do the crime, we're sure they did another one."

    And then, I am sure that Governor Lepetomane--excuse me--the judge gave that pair of beauties all the careful consideration they so richly deserved, while signing the warrant unread.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Feb 2019 @ 4:04am

    Wait a second....

    THAT'S MY HOUSE!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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