You Know That Mobile Phone Tracking Data You Used As Evidence In Over 10,000 Court Cases? Turns Out Some Of It Was Wrong, But We're Not Sure Which Yet

from the sorry-about-that dept

As many have pointed out, our mobile phones are the perfect surveillance device. Most people carry them around -- voluntarily -- while they are awake. Put this together with the fact that mobile phones have to connect to a nearby transmitter in order to work, and you end up with a pretty good idea of where the person using the device is throughout the day. No surprise, then, that police and prosecutors around the world turn routinely to phone tracking data when they are investigating cases. But as the New York Times reports, there can be serious problems with simply assuming the results are reliable. The Danish authorities have to review over 10,000 court verdicts because of errors in mobile phone tracking data that was offered as evidence in those cases. In addition, Denmark's director of public prosecutions has ordered a two-month halt in the use of this location data in criminal cases while experts try to sort out the problems:

The first error was found in an I.T. system that converts phone companies' raw data into evidence that the police and prosecutors can use to place a person at the scene of a crime. During the conversions, the system omitted some data, creating a less-detailed image of a cellphone’s whereabouts. The error was fixed in March after the national police discovered it.

In a second problem, some cellphone tracking data linked phones to the wrong cellphone towers, potentially connecting innocent people to crime scenes, said Jan Reckendorff, the director of public prosecutions.

It's not clear yet how serious these blunders will turn out to be -- it might only be a few, relatively minor cases. Or it might involve a large number of more serious crimes. Either way, it's a salutary reminder that however useful a technology might appear for the purposes of solving crimes -- and however straightforward its application seems -- things can and will go wrong. There's another approach that some people tend to view as infallible: the use of DNA sequencing techniques to identify suspects from material left at the scene of the crime. DNA is undoubtedly a powerful way of pulling information from tiny amounts of material, but there are a number of ways in which it can mislead badly. The same applies to mobile phone location data, as the Danish experience usefully underlines.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter, Diaspora, or Mastodon.

Filed Under: denmark, evidence, lawsuits, location data, tracking data


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  • icon
    sehlat (profile), 30 Aug 2019 @ 12:31pm

    If you want Godlike power...

    you had damn well better be prepared to a deal with the demands of Godlike responsibility.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Aug 2019 @ 12:37pm

    I know if I were to commit a serious crime, I'd surreptitiously leave my phone with someone else and borrow another person's phone who looks vaguely like me to carry while committing the crime, then toss it immediately after.

    Then I'd just have to hope that whoever I left my phone with wasn't out committing crimes while I was gone.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 30 Aug 2019 @ 1:07pm

      Re:

      That's assuming your criminal actions were predetermined...

      I suspect in many cases, crimes are not always predetermined, but rather opportunistic.

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

    • icon
      Ole Husgaard (profile), 30 Aug 2019 @ 3:22pm

      Re:

      That might not work in my country. I know of several criminal cases where it was argued that the the defendant did this on purpose, and the court accepted the argument.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Aug 2019 @ 1:44pm

    I wonder which is more reliable, Mobile Phone Tracking Data or Roadside Drug Tests.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Aug 2019 @ 2:33pm

    My phone isn't me

    So I don't go 'everywhere' with my phone... it's not always charged, sometimes it gets dropped out of my pocket in a car or I can forget it somewhere... ... any which way, there's no way to absolutely determine if the phone is in an individuals possession, so how in the hell can this be called evidence? Can you also turn around and say "hey, my alibi is my location record on my phone".... I don't actually know, but I don't it would work out very well if you tried it.

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

  • icon
    Ole Husgaard (profile), 30 Aug 2019 @ 3:17pm

    Some information from a local

    I live in Denmark and have followed this case closely.

    The problem is that telecoms are required by law to collect location data of phones. This law has been declared illegal (violation of human rights and the proportionality principle) by the EU court of justice several years ago, but has not been changed yet.

    The location data is frequently used in criminal cases here, and counts as objective evidence, like a vitness report.

    This scandal is that our police "converted" the data obtained from the telecom before presenting it to the court, and that there were several serious errors in this "conversion". Even worse, our police kept this secret for months after it was discovered.

    Now add that the defense in a criminal case in our country are not allowed to do any investigation, as our police has a monopoly on this. So if a defence lawyer tries to obtain the original location data from the telecom he would break the law and loose his license to practise law.

    This means that the defense in a criminal case has to rely on the location data "evidence" presented to the court by the prosecution.

    When news of the "conversion errors" were first made public, we were told that this error could have been happening since 2012, but later it has been revealed that it could have happened even before that.

    More than half of all "criminals" in jail in my country today vere convicted because of this faulty location data presented to the courts, so this is a huge scandal.

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

  • identicon
    Pixelation, 30 Aug 2019 @ 6:28pm

    But, but but

    They have an IP address. That's clear proof, just ask the RIAA and MPAA. They are total angels and always tell the truth, right?

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Aug 2019 @ 9:23pm

    Not a criminal but I normally leave my cell phone at home. I know it's not going to be stolen or dropped there. I won't be walking around like some bumping into others because they are looking at their phone and not where they are going.

    Not everyone lives and dies with a phone in their pocket.

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

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 2 Sep 2019 @ 1:08am

      Re:

      "I know it's not going to be stolen or dropped there."

      You also know that nobody will be able to contact you when you're out and that you won't be able to contact anybody else either, as well as not being able to access any of the other features that are standard in a modern phone.

      Which just raises the question of why you don't just have a landline, since that's likely cheaper and more suited to your needs. That doesn't make you better than everybody else, and in fact it might just highlight some poor decision making.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Aug 2019 @ 10:06am

    ...can use to place a person['s phone] at the scene of a crime.

    FTFY

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Aug 2019 @ 10:26am

    Cell tower tracking evidence should be barred from courtrooms because it is ambiguous at best and downright misleading at worst.

    If you want to dig into what bad things can be done by prosecutors with this data and a bunch of jurors who aren't technical (and therefore believe the CSI/NCIS/TV garbage about this kind of crap that always catches only the bad guys), go listen to the podcast -- Undisclosed: The State v. Adnan Syed.

    Serial: Season 1 covers the same case but doesn't go into the depth the other podcast did, especially when it came to why that data is not a great way to determine someone's whereabout, even if they do have the phone on them at all times.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 1 Sep 2019 @ 8:58am

      Re:

      It's not just the jurors who are non-technical. The prosecutors, police, even the defense typically don't know enough about any of the testing techniques to understand that none of them on their own are proof of anything.

      DNA testing will get you a "reasonably close match". Cell phone location data will get you an "in the general area" match. Even a kitchen knife left at the scene might get you a "the accused has this same set of knives and the one like this is missing from their knife block". None of this is proof of a crime but if you have all 3 then you have a fairly strong case that this person took a knife from their own kitchen, used it in a crime and then left the knife at the scene along with some of their own hair clutched in the victim's hand. Altogether that's fairly damning evidence. Taken individually each is only a suggestion.

      Drug test kits, IP addresses, police dogs (perhaps not even the latter), etc are all just more of the same.

      The trouble is that plebs don't get that and think, as you say, that crime shows on TV are documentaries and that a DNA test is absolute proof, infallible; Cell phone location data can pinpoint precisely where a person was at every moment, also infallible; And you can tell a criminal just by looking at them so proving guilt is just a matter of procedure.

      We all get "innocent until proven guilty" but most assume guilt or innocence at first sight and only listen to testimony that reinforces that assumption, ignoring the rest. If you're the accused your best hope is that there is at least one smart person on the jury that will try and convince the dumb ones they're doing it wrong.

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

  • icon
    Jassicablog (profile), 1 Sep 2019 @ 9:49am

    It's a negotiating ploy. They're holding out for the US Virgin Islands, the state of Rhode Island and a territory to be named later. There's also talk of doing a three-country swap where Nova Scotia goes to France who ships it's two first round draft picks to Trump, who sends Alaska's rookie contract to Denmark. see more: http://nikahtodnekawazifa.com/

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


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