Florida PD's Reverse Warrant Leads To Innocent Man Being Targeted In A Robbery Investigation

from the let-me-ride-my-bike-through-the-wide-open-country-that-I-love dept

Riding your bike while sending out geolocation data is the hot new crime.

Cops are using reverse warrants with increasing frequency, inverting the usual investigation process by demanding info about everyone in a certain area before trimming down the data haul to a list of suspects. It's sort of like canvassing a neighborhood, except investigators approach companies like Google, rather than people who might have seen something.

The problem with these dragnets is it makes everyone in the area a suspect. The more heavily-trafficked the area is, the more problematic this process is. Reverse warrants have already resulted in innocent people being jailed. This report by NBC News is another cautionary tale -- one that involves a man who became a suspect in a robbery just because he wandered into the geofence set up by cops.

The email arrived on a Tuesday afternoon in January, startling Zachary McCoy as he prepared to leave for his job at a restaurant in Gainesville, Florida.

It was from Google’s legal investigations support team, writing to let him know that local police had demanded information related to his Google account. The company said it would release the data unless he went to court and tried to block it. He had just seven days.

[...]

In the notice from Google was a case number. McCoy searched for it on the Gainesville Police Department’s website, and found a one-page investigation report on the burglary of an elderly woman’s home 10 months earlier. The crime had occurred less than a mile from the home that McCoy, who had recently earned an associate degree in computer programming, shared with two others.

Now McCoy was even more panicked and confused. He knew he had nothing to do with the break-in ─ he’d never even been to the victim’s house ─ and didn’t know anyone who might have. And he didn’t have much time to prove it.

This put McCoy in the very uncomfortable position of proving his innocence even before he had even been charged with a crime. Realizing there was a good possibility approaching the department directly would result in his immediate arrest, McCoy hired a lawyer using money given to him by his parents from their savings. His lawyer, Caleb Kenyon, went to court to get the warrant killed.

Kenyon argued that the warrant was unconstitutional because it allowed police to conduct sweeping searches of phone data from untold numbers of people in order to find a single suspect.

[...]

“This geofence warrant effectively blindly casts a net backwards in time hoping to ensnare a burglar,” Kenyon wrote. “This concept is akin to the plotline in many a science fiction film featuring a dystopian, fascist government.”

Had McCoy not done this, the Gainesville PD would have continued to view him as the most likely suspect, approaching Google once again to obtain identifying info. McCoy's daily bike rides took him past the crime scene he never knew was a crime scene. With the warrant being questioned, the Gainesville PD withdrew it, saying statements made in the McCoy's lawyer's filings made it clear they were targeting the wrong person.

Imagine how this would have gone for someone without the funds to hire a lawyer… or for any number of people who may feel there's nothing they can do to prevent cops from obtaining their information from a third party. The novelty of this inverted interpretation of probable cause doesn't lend itself to simple answers. Clearing your name isn't as easy as showing up at the cop shop with a reasonable explanation about why your location data is all over the crime scene.

When rounding up the usual suspects means harvesting data on hundreds or thousands of innocent people, the possibility of putting the wrong person in jail increases exponentially. McCoy's experience may be an outlier, but it won't be that way for long.

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Filed Under: 4th amendment, florida, gainesville, geofence warrant, geolocation, location data, warrants, zachary mccoy
Companies: google


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  1. identicon
    Bruce C., 13 Mar 2020 @ 11:14am

    "McCoy's experience may be an outlier, but it won't be that way for long"

    Oh, it'll still be an outlier. But if the use of these geo-fence reverse warrants becomes commonplace and increases (say) 100-fold, the false positives will also increase 100 fold. So they will seem more common, even if the false positives remain as rare outliers on a percentage basis.

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

  2. identicon
    bobob, 13 Mar 2020 @ 11:26am

    Aside from the obvious problem of the police and the "reverse warrant," shouldn't google be involved in blocking these warrants? It's google that is tasked with providing the information, so really, the issue is between google and law enforcement. Google is essentially passing the buck here. The person being targeted is essentially doing google's legal work since it is google that is in control of the information being sought.

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

  3. identicon
    pegr, 13 Mar 2020 @ 11:27am

    So what?

    I'm not going to argue whether or not the warrant was good. That's something else.

    But so what if he was a suspect? So they tag him and question him. Even the evidence they got would indicate he just rode by, didn't stop.

    If they were doing there job correctly, they could eliminate him as a suspect without even questioning him. Maybe they had a list of many could-be-suspects. Being investigated because you happen to be in the area when a crime is committed is not really an issue.

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

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Mar 2020 @ 12:22pm

    Why do people insist on leaving digital trails everywhere they go? GPS, cell towers, WiFi connections, use of all kinds of social or semi-social apps... I don't get it. But maybe that's because I've been in tech for decades and I know full well what's happening when I use electronic devices and services. Half the time I don't even take my phone with me when I leave the house.

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

  5. icon
    Waitman (profile), 13 Mar 2020 @ 12:31pm

    Re: So what?

    I agree, it sounded like he was worried about it and borrowed money from his parents to hire an attorney. It seemed like the legal case points were valid, but the police didn't actually contact him yet, right? He was presuming there would be trouble. I don't think I would have spent the money.

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

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Mar 2020 @ 12:40pm

    Re:

    People want to use mobile devices, and although we've long had the technology to hide user locations from a network (onion routing, zero-knowledge proofs, etc.), the cellular network doesn't support any of that. Every cell tower knows who's connected and the logs are stored almost forever.

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

  7. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Mar 2020 @ 12:45pm

    Re:

    Aside from the obvious problem of the police and the "reverse warrant," shouldn't google be involved in blocking these warrants?

    How about they get involved in not storing location data for people using Google phones? Unlike the phone companies, Google don't need it.

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

  8. identicon
    michael, 13 Mar 2020 @ 1:56pm

    This is a BS article, and Techdirt should know it

    Nothing in the original article suggests that the guy was a suspect. It's just as likely that he was wanted as a potential witness, particularly since his location data would have shown that he was near the area BUT DIDN'T STOP.

    Techdirt should know better than to run with this sensational bullshit. Yes, these warrants suck; no, nothing IRL implies that this guy was a suspect.

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

  9. icon
    Atkray (profile), 13 Mar 2020 @ 2:04pm

    Re: Re: So what?

    You might not of spent the money but most people are mindful of the story (and others like it) from yesterday with this nugget of truth:

    "If you don't want to see six-year-olds cuffed by cops, the solution is simple: DON'T CALL THE COPS."

    In this case the cops had already been called and were just looking for an address to drive the SWAT tank to.

    If the cops are looking for you, getting a lawyer in between them and yourself very well could save your life.

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

  10. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Mar 2020 @ 3:01pm

    Re: Re:

    Then keep your phone in a faraday cage when you're not actively using it.

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

  11. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Mar 2020 @ 3:02pm

    Re: This is a BS article, and Techdirt should know it

    You're a fool if you think the police would have bothered to keep investigating once they had this guy in a holding cell.

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

  12. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Mar 2020 @ 3:52pm

    Re: So what?

    I see by your statements you have had very little experience with the police. After they arrest and jail you for a few years for something you know nothing about I wander if you will feel the same way.

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

  13. icon
    Wyrm (profile), 13 Mar 2020 @ 4:35pm

    Re: Re:

    Phone companies don't either.
    They need to know connection times for billing purposes, but they don't need to keep location data any more than Google does.

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

  14. icon
    Wyrm (profile), 13 Mar 2020 @ 4:57pm

    Re: This is a BS article, and Techdirt should know it

    I agree that he was probably just short-listed for the next round of data collection. The cops weren't considering him suspect enough to arrest him (yet?), but they were definitely at the stage of getting the full private data set from Google, so they did consider him suspect him to move that step forward.

    This is shown when they mention that "the Gainesville PD withdrew [the request], saying statements made in the McCoy's lawyer's filings made it clear they were targeting the wrong person." Problem is that they were moving forward with nothing else than his name being on the list of people "in the neighborhood" when the crime occurred. And they probably have tons of other names in their list, people who probably didn't consider contesting the request worth the expense for a lawyer. These ones will be investigated to a degree that should be (and probably is) unconstitutional. They're just not going to make the news.

    So, the problem is not that this specific individual was a formal suspect, which he wasn't (since he was not indicted), but that he was "suspicious enough" by the cop (loose) standards that they could request tons of personal information on him. Without any reasonable evidence that he's worthy of investigating.

    That's the base definition of a fishing expedition, which is supposed to be illegal.

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

  15. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Mar 2020 @ 5:38pm

    ... saying statements made in the McCoy's lawyer's filings made it clear they were targeting the wrong person.

    Translation: he's got a lawyer defending him, it won't be easy to intimidate him into a plea deal.

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

  16. identicon
    OGquaker, 13 Mar 2020 @ 5:43pm

    Re: Re: Re faraday cage bag man

    Star Trek The Movie was constructed on a Evans&Sutherland vector machine, a "connect the dots" display because the transistors were to slow for a digital raster. Bingo: tie a shoelace between your desk and your phone device like the old days, or they got you!

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

  17. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Mar 2020 @ 9:49am

    Future headline:

    Police baffled by criminal who apparently does not have a cell phone

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

  18. identicon
    Being Targeted, 14 Mar 2020 @ 12:21pm

    targeted individuals

    Targeted Individuals/ Gang stalking.

    I like it: please describe these two concepts concurrently, to combat the police/NSA/Et alphabet agencies more often, and more precisely, for the sake of their (many, many) victims.

    You said: "Being Targeted....."

    the next step is to call them victims of "gang stalking"

    That will be a real revolution.

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

  19. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Mar 2020 @ 4:22pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    They need to know connection times for billing purposes

    These days, with unlimited calling plans, they kind of don't. They do need to know locations, temporarily, for routing; that would be fixable if people cared enough. (If I access Techdirt from open wi-fi, with a random MAC address, using Tor, basically nobody can link me to that. No reason we can't do similar on the cell network by adding a zero-knowledge proof of subscribership.)

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

  20. identicon
    Annonymouse, 15 Mar 2020 @ 2:29pm

    Re: Re: So what?

    Oh they don't have to worry about languishing in jail for years. They would have been shot during the initial encounter and resisting arrest phase.

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

  21. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Mar 2020 @ 3:20pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    But how do you phone a friend, or send them a text message if their and your phone numbers are variable? Without an identifier on the network, you would be limited to communicating via servers, like email or IRC, and unless you stay connected to those servers, you have no notification of new messages when they are sent.

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

  22. icon
    Wyrm (profile), 16 Mar 2020 @ 1:08pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    You do need an identifier. You don't need a location history attached to it.

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


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