Reverse Warrant For Cell Site Location Info Results In Wrong Man Being Jailed

from the first-but-certainly-not-the-last dept

Reverse warrants are the new regular warrants. Ever since law enforcement discovered most Americans carry tracking devices with them 24/7, they've been approaching cellphone providers with warrants targeting geographic areas rather than people.

When a crime has been committed but cops don't have any suspects, they ask Google and others to canvass the area for them. Officers hand providers a geofence and ask for everyone who wandered into the selected area during a certain timeframe. Once cops have everyone, they start looking for someone.

It seems weird but it's really not all that different than sending officers out to areas around crime scenes to ask anyone if they've seen anything. The difference here is cops are getting info about people's movements in an area when they're not suspected of any criminal activity. In addition, the areas covered by warrants often include high-traffic areas like businesses and multi-family housing, increasing the chance cops are going to zero in on the wrong suspect simply because someone lives or works near a crime scene.

That's exactly what happened in Phoenix, Arizona. Detectives investigating a shooting handed a reverse warrant to Google. This data was used to arrest the wrong person, as Jennifer Valentino-DeVries reports for the New York Times.

The police told the suspect, Jorge Molina, they had data tracking his phone to the site where a man was shot nine months earlier. They had made the discovery after obtaining a search warrant that required Google to provide information on all devices it recorded near the killing, potentially capturing the whereabouts of anyone in the area.

[...]

But after he spent nearly a week in jail, the case against Mr. Molina fell apart as investigators learned new information and released him. Last month, the police arrested another man: his mother’s ex-boyfriend, who had sometimes used Mr. Molina’s car.

Police like the new tool, but acknowledge it has its limits. First, there's a lot of junk data to sort through, and not all investigators have the training necessary to make sense of these quasi-tower dumps. But that hasn't stopped them from using this option with increasing frequency. Google -- which holds up to ten years of location data in a massive database referred to by employees as the "Sensorvault" -- is now receiving up to 180 requests a week for mass location data.

Prosecutors seem cautious about the tool as well, which is a good sign. But considering what happened to Jorge Molina, this statement seems a bit too optimistic.

“It doesn’t pop out the answer like a ticker tape, saying this guy’s guilty,” said Gary Ernsdorff, a senior prosecutor in Washington State who has worked on several cases involving these warrants. Potential suspects must still be fully investigated, he added. “We’re not going to charge anybody just because Google said they were there.”

Well, maybe Ernsdorff won't. But it appears others will. The more law enforcement shoots first and asks questions later, the more often it's going to end up putting the wrong person behind bars. Like any other bulk collection, the potential to reach the wrong conclusion while sorting through haystacks is omnipresent. If Google's responding to tens of thousands of requests a year for bulk location data, Jorge Molina's story isn't going to remain an outlier for long. Certainly the tool has proven useful in other cases, but the sheer number of requests suggests law enforcement isn't using this tool cautiously. That's bad news for everyone carrying a cellphone.

Filed Under: cell site location info, csli, false arrests, jorge molina, phoenix, reverse warrant
Companies: google


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  • icon
    Gary (profile), 22 Apr 2019 @ 12:12pm

    Hard

    So... The Police need to Nerd Harder and check their facts before arresting people?

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 22 Apr 2019 @ 12:21pm

      Re: Hard

      Nah. This is google's fault. Somehow.

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

    • icon
      Madd the Sane (profile), 22 Apr 2019 @ 6:07pm

      Re: Hard

      Nah, they need to Police Harder.

      Apparently it's harder than Nerving Hard, but it can help with situations like these. Somehow.

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

    • identicon
      Mrdamage, 22 Apr 2019 @ 6:23pm

      Re: Hard

      Why? It's working perfectly well for the police. The occasional pleb that spends a week in jail and gets fired from his job, evicted for being late with rent or just winds up behind on their house payments really isn't a problem for them.

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

    • identicon
      TRX, 23 Apr 2019 @ 1:53am

      Re: Hard

      Nah. It's just lazy police work. "Arrest them all and let the courts figure it out."

      Makes their stats look good even if the arrests turn out to be bogus.Appropriations, raises, and promotions for everyone!

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

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 22 Apr 2019 @ 12:18pm

    But they saw this tech used on CSI and it spit out the answer in the first 5 minutes, so it must work.

    Its a pity they no longer feel they need to do the job, they just wait for tech to hand them the answer.

    Perhaps we need to require refresher courses on investigation, FSM they need refresher courses in how NOT to violate civil rights, how NOT to panic because the driver is black...

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

  • icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), 22 Apr 2019 @ 12:36pm

    This isn't a bug, but a feature.

    Considering how difficult it is so easy to convict yet so difficult to challenge a conviction, this will fill our private prisons with more warm bodies, hence fuels the industry!

    Our legal system (especially our DAs) don't care about whether you're guilty. They care about whether you're convicted After that, you serve their purpose, whether innocent or guilty.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Apr 2019 @ 12:37pm

    So how long would it take them to locate a suspect who left their phone at home?

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Apr 2019 @ 12:44pm

    "But after he spent nearly a week in jail, the case against Mr. Molina fell apart as investigators learned new information and released him."

    Maybe the cops/da should gather the evidence before arresting an easy target. What's next ... arrest everyone in the area and sort it out later.

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

    • icon
      Gary (profile), 22 Apr 2019 @ 12:48pm

      Re:

      What's next ... arrest everyone in the area and sort it out later.

      That's completely ridiculous. Everyone? Only the brown people.

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

      • icon
        Thad (profile), 22 Apr 2019 @ 12:54pm

        Re: Re:

        As a native of the Phoenix area, I am shocked to learn that someone with a name like "Jorge Molina" was falsely arrested by our law enforcement officers.

        (Note for people who are bad at sarcasm: That was sarcasm.)

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 22 Apr 2019 @ 2:19pm

      Re:

      What's next ... arrest everyone in the area and sort it out later.

      Next? That already happened at the 2004 RNC (1800 people arrested and thrown in pens in an abandoned building, 90% freed without charges, upwards of $10 million paid out for false arrests). Similar things have happened since, in smaller numbers.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Apr 2019 @ 1:06pm

    Certainly the tool has proven useful in other cases, but the sheer number of requests suggests law enforcement isn't using this tool cautiously.

    That's not necessarily true, and arguably is contraindicated by this story. They are now using the tool 180 times per week. They've screwed up at least once that we know of. Let's assume that they're really good at concealing their screwups and that we only hear about 5% of the cases where they jail an innocent bystander. That's still only 20 screwups out of thousands of reverse warrant requests. That's not cautious enough when innocent people's freedom is on the line, but it is still a very low error rate. To me, they are using it cautiously if they try not to let the data lead them to improper official actions (arrests, detentions, surveillance); merely dumping the data and then not using it to harass anyone is not incautious use.

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

    • icon
      mhajicek (profile), 22 Apr 2019 @ 4:22pm

      Re:

      Perhaps most of those falsely accused are convicted or accept a plea bargain, and thus do not register as false positives.

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

    • identicon
      Kitsune106, 22 Apr 2019 @ 5:32pm

      I still thought

      We believedin better that 10 guilty go free then 1 innocent suffer. When did judge's dredd's phuilsophy of better 10 inncoent suffer then 1 guilty go free, and from warhammer 40k, "A plea of innocent is guilty of wasting my time" that seems to occur?

      mind, given they are working with the worst of the worst, and their training, can see why they percieve reality this way.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Apr 2019 @ 1:26pm

    This case actually seems more like the inevitable false positive to me, considering who they later arrested.

    Essentially, Google said "I think I saw someone in the area at the time in question. They had this phone."

    And the PD looked into it and found that hey, here's this guy with no alibi who was supposedly there and likely has motive. They arrest him, and keep on looking for evidence.

    Eventually they discover that it was some other guy who used his car, they release their prime suspect and arrest their new prime suspect.

    Surely this kind of thing happens all the time, absent the location data search?

    This is definitely something for police to be aware of going forward, but it seems like they did the right thing in this case, even if they may not do the right thing in future cases and go in guns blazing when they've got the wrong phone/person. But that would then be a procedural thing those police are doing wrong, and nothing to do with how they identified the potential culprit.

    I started reading this article anticipating that they were going to be found holding location data on a large area for fishing expeditions, or for flagging someone totally unrelated to the incident and ignoring the other evidence. I'm much happier with the actual outcome (although I'm sure Jorge wasn't).

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Apr 2019 @ 1:34pm

    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.

    How does a reverse warrant meet the standards spelled out in the last part of the 4th Amendment?

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

  • icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), 22 Apr 2019 @ 2:06pm

    This begs for a phone service that conceals one's location.

    I've recently started using a service that relays SMS messages to my phone by internet to be sent out. My intention was to facilitate sustaining communication when using the tablet.

    But if I turned off my tablet location services, then I'd be able to travel about and still SMS while my phone is at home, so long as I am at a wifi hotspot.

    So imagine our mystery thriller heister who extends all services so they relay to his phone though one or two VPN tunnels (tab-to-net, phone-to-net) so that his phone is doing all his messaging and stuff -- from his wife's purse or best friend's car or whatever.

    Also he's smart enough to change the MAC addy of his tablet before and after a heist. That's not all that hard to do.

    Have we established reasonable doubt yet?

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 22 Apr 2019 @ 2:24pm

      Re: This begs for a phone service that conceals one's location.

      I'm still waiting for the app that prevents your phone from connecting to any cell site that isn't well-known or, optionally, that the user approves. Mostly this would defeat the mobile cell simulators/forwarders used by law bastardization agencies but it could also let the user prevent location data except when actively using one's phone.

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 22 Apr 2019 @ 2:30pm

        Re: Re: This begs for a phone service that conceals one's locati

        Two things to try:

        • If not actively using the phone, enable Airplane mode.
        • Turn off all fallbacks if possible. Eg., if you have a 4G phone, turn off all pre-4G service. (Some of those Stingrays used to force people to 2G because of better security in the newer standards.)

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 22 Apr 2019 @ 2:26pm

      Re: This begs for a phone service that conceals one's location.

      What you're describing is just Tor for the cellular network. The exact same technology could work if the providers let it. You'd have to prove you're a subscriber, which zero-knowledge proofs easily allow. See for example the Nym paper here.

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

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 22 Apr 2019 @ 4:29pm

    Uh, no?

    It seems weird but it's really not all that different than sending officers out to areas around crime scenes to ask anyone if they've seen anything.

    No, it really isn't. In the 'sending officers out to ask question' they need to narrow down the scope, both in how large an area to canvas and what they are looking for, everyone knows it's happening, and there's a chance to object.

    With a cell site location dump everyone in the area, an area limited only by what they are willing to ask for and get a judge to sign off on, has their movements tracked for whatever time period was asked for, people only find out about the search after it's taken place(potentially only finding out at the time they're arrested), and it's only after they've grabbed everything that they start narrowing it down.

    A search/questioning that you are aware of and can choose whether or not to involve yourself in is very different than one that you have no choice as to whether or not you're involved, and that you only find out about after it's already taken place(assuming you even do find out about it, how many of those who are being unwittingly tracked are ever told about it?).

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 23 Apr 2019 @ 7:55am

      Re: Uh, no?

      have you heard of cameras? it's been possible to retroactively canvas an area without sending anyone in or alerting the people present for a long time. it took more manpower to identify suspects from the footage, but with facial recognition that's not necessarily the case anymore either
      cops just need to remember that a) being near a crime scene isn't enough evidence to declare you guilty and b) a phone registered to your name being located to a crime scene doesn't mean YOU were there, both because location data isn't necessarily accurate and because phones aren't grafted to their owners

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

      • icon
        Uriel-238 (profile), 23 Apr 2019 @ 11:58am

        Cameras

        London -- the most videoed city in the world -- has demonstrated to be a counter example, even with facial recognition. All those cameras have been useful in the solving of zero crimes in London.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Apr 2019 @ 5:16pm

    "Useful"?

    Certainly the tool has proven useful in other cases,

    Yes, I'm sure that these general warrants have proven very useful.

    It's a shame that *all general warrants are unconstitutional", then, eh?

    The best analogy for this is police rousting an entire block and searching every house for somebody who fled into the area. Which is exactly what the particularity requirement is supposed to prevent.

    This does not qualify as "particularly describing the places to be searched".

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

  • identicon
    Bobob, 22 Apr 2019 @ 9:00pm

    It might be bad news for people carrying cellphones, but it's good news for criminals. Don't carry a cellphone when committing a crime. Then the only suspects won't include you.

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

    • icon
      Uriel-238 (profile), 22 Apr 2019 @ 10:20pm

      Criminals with cellphones

      Terrorists and anarchists who know they're going to engage in subversive activities will use a burner phone (a pre-paid disposable phone) if they need one, and discard it once on the escape path.

      This method only works for spontaneous or impulsive perps or ones that don't yet know they're criminal, say someone marked by a corrupt official that needs to be disappeared.

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


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