NYPD Used Reverse Warrants To Round Up Proud Boys Members Suspected Of Beating Antifa Members

from the bringing-Google's-data-slurping-to-a-hashtag-war dept

The first documented case of the NYPD using reverse warrants to find criminal suspects has been revealed. It made its appearance in perhaps the most 2019 of cases: the trial of two members of the Proud Boys facing assault charges for allegedly attacking members of Antifa.

Reverse warrants work this way: law enforcement agencies approach tech companies with geographic coordinates, asking for phone data for all phones within the geofenced area during a certain time frame. Using this data, law enforcement works its way backwards to probable cause, sifting through records to find what phones were in the area when the alleged crime was committed.

Obviously, this is a highly-imperfect way to track down suspects. For one, GPS data collected by companies like Google isn't exactly precise. For another, "fenced-in" areas will always contain numerous people who aren't criminals or even suspects, but the data turns them all into suspects until investigators sort them out. The more heavily-trafficked an area is, the more likely the chance officers will pursue the wrong phones/people.

This case was made a bit trickier by the victims' unwillingness to cooperate with the investigation. As George Joseph reports for Gothamist, the lack of victims to question nudged the NYPD towards deploying the legally-dubious tactic.

The use of this surveillance technique has not been confirmed in New York City until now. An investigator for the Manhattan DA revealed it during testimony last week in a case involving a politically-charged assault from last year.

The defendants are members of the Proud Boys, a group of pro-Trump rightwing extremists who allegedly beat up four leftist protesters, believed to be associated with Antifa, outside an Upper East Side event last October. The four protesters refused to cooperate with police, and authorities were unable to identify them.

According to the New York Times' account of this trial, the victims are evoked repeatedly in the court, despite no one knowing their names. This oddity has lead to the composition of sentences no one has ever read before.

The four who were assaulted refused to talk with the police. They were identified in an indictment only as Shaved Head, Ponytail, Khaki and Spiky Belt. Their whereabouts are unknown.

The two accused Proud Boys members are using the general perception of Antifa as violent to argue these attacks -- which were caught on video -- were actually acts of self-defense. The manhunt for the Proud Boys suspects may have taken the NYPD a bit longer, but the same Antifa that aggravated its own assault also provided law enforcement with plenty of useful information.

“There was a tremendous amount of what we call ‘doxxing,’” the detective, Thomas Mays, testified, using a slang term for the practice of disclosing personal information online. “Names that were given for the individuals.”

However you may feel about this comeuppance of the still-presumed-innocent Proud Boys members, the fact that the NYPD used this tactic successfully should be more than a bit chilling. Here's what the NYPD demanded from Google.

According to the investigator’s testimony, authorities were looking for location records from “Google’s Android platform and Google-based apps, such as Google Maps, [that] utilize location service[s].” The warrant requested records from multiple sites, including where the conflict broke out on 82nd Street and other locations where participants in the clash may have been that evening.

New York City is home to a densely-packed 8.6 million people. Throwing up geofences almost anywhere in the city is bound to return hundreds, if not thousands, of records that have nothing to do with the crime being investigated. At that point, the data is in the NYPD's hands and residents are at the mercy of investigators' haystack-sorting skills.

To make matters worse, if the use of reverse warrants in Minnesota is any indication, judges aren't being given enough information to make judgment calls on the mass harvesting of phone records in search of a suspect. In most cases, all they get are geographic coordinates that tell them next to nothing about the size -- or population density -- of the area targeted. And yet (or perhaps despite this), these warrants are being approved in minutes, suggesting judges are simply trusting the cops know what they're doing with all their highly-technical toys.

In the end, these warrants are surveillance dragnets that grab everyone located inside the coordinates. And it's left up to the discretion of these blue-suited fisherman to determine which of these hundreds of fish gets tossed back into the suspicion-free ocean. Reverse warrants aren't really warrants. Warrants require probable cause. Reverse warrants require only guesswork and faith.

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Filed Under: 4th amendment, antifa, nypd, privacy, proud boys, reverse warrant
Companies: google

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Aug 2019 @ 10:24am

    Re: AC as idiot expert

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    At this point, I can pretty much dismiss anything you say. How can we have an intelligent discussion when you aren't even intelligent enough to understand a simple comment system.

    Lets talk about your anonymity here, shall we?

    Let's start with yours. I am no more anonymous than you are.

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