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North Carolina Police Obtained Warrants Demanding All Google Users Near Four Crime Scenes (wral.com) 214

An anonymous reader quotes the public records reporter from North Carolina TV station WRAL: In at least four investigations last year -- cases of murder, sexual battery and even possible arson at the massive downtown fire in March 2017 -- Raleigh police used search warrants to demand Google accounts not of specific suspects, but from any mobile devices that veered too close to the scene of a crime, according to a WRAL News review of court records... The demands Raleigh police issued for Google data [in two homicide cases] described a 17-acre area that included both homes and businesses... The account IDs aren't limited to electronics running Android. The warrant includes any device running location-enabled Google apps, according to Raleigh Police Department spokeswoman Laura Hourigan...

On March 16, 2017, a five-alarm fire ripped through the unfinished Metropolitan apartment building on West Jones Street... About two months later, Raleigh police obtained a search warrant for Google account IDs that showed up near the block of the Metropolitan between 7:30 and 10 p.m. the night of the fire... In addition to anonymized numerical identifiers, the warrant calls on Google to release time stamped location coordinates for every device that passed through the area. Detectives wrote that they'd narrow down that list and send it back to the company, demanding "contextual data points with points of travel outside of the geographical area" during an expanded timeframe. Another review would further cull the list, which police would use to request user names, birth dates and other identifying information of the phones' owners.

"Do people understand that in sharing that information with Google, they're also potentially sharing it with law enforcement?" asks a former Durham prosecutor who directs the North Carolina Open Government Coalition at Elon University. And Stephanie Lacambra, criminal defense staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, also criticized the procedure. "To just say, 'Criminals commit crimes, and we know that most people have cell phones,' that should not be enough to get the geo-location on anyone that happened to be in the vicinity of a particular incident during a particular time." She believes that without probable cause the police department is "trying to use technology as a hack for their job... It does not have to be that we have to give up our privacy rights in order to participate in the digital revolution."

Nathan Freed Wessler, staff attorney with the ACLU's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, put it succinctly. "At the end of the day, this tactic unavoidably risks getting information about totally innocent people."
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North Carolina Police Obtained Warrants Demanding All Google Users Near Four Crime Scenes

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  • Faraday cages that allow a cell phone to stay powered on but never connected.
    Easy to use when needed quickly but stay not connected when moving around a city, state?
    Make sure a big brand can only see your phone at home and at work.
    • Wouldn't "Airplane Mode" do the same thing, you know, without carrying around a grounded metal cage?
      • Re:Some kind of (Score:4, Insightful)

        by AHuxley ( 892839 ) on Saturday March 17, 2018 @11:00AM (#56274995) Journal
        Trust the PRISM brands with their hardware to say off is off?
        Trust but verify now works for the faraday cage.
        The big telco brands cant be trusted.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by swillden ( 191260 )

          Trust the PRISM brands with their hardware to say off is off?

          No need to trust. A cheap RF signal meter can tell you for sure. And what are the odds that no one would have noticed and blown the whistle if airplane mode didn't actually work?

          Sigh. This site used to be populated by people with a clue. This is like all of those people who believe that smart speakers must be sending 24/7 audio to the cloud, but don't bother to simply measure the data the devices send/receive at their routers and do the math.

          Paranoia is well and good, but being paranoid about a possibil

          • Re: Some kind of (Score:5, Insightful)

            by fortfive ( 1582005 ) on Saturday March 17, 2018 @11:20AM (#56275083)

            Could not the device continue to collect location data without emitting ref signals?

            • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

              This is indeed the problem. You might be able to detect things like power draw and RF oscillators if the device is receiving RF signals even when in airplane mode, but it is harder to do than measuring transmissions.

              There is also a question about what "airplane mode" actually does. Okay, it prevents transmissions, but what about GPS? It appears to turn it off, but why? GPS is receive only, there is no transmission and no danger to aircraft even if it is turned on. Chances are it turns GPS off just to satisf

              • GPS works fine with airplane mode. I use it to check airspeed when sitting in window seats. There are GPS-only location apps for you to nerd out on individual satellite signal, etc.

                Flying in airplanes can get pretty tedious.

                • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

                  Sure, on my phone you can enable everything in airplane mode if you want to. It's just a fast "disable everything" button.

                • by sabri ( 584428 )

                  GPS works fine with airplane mode. I use it to check airspeed when sitting in window seats.

                  You cannot check airspeed using GPS. Airspeed is measured by measuring the difference in airpressure from the pitot port and the static port.

                  What you're measuring is groundspeed. If you have both (that is, groundspeed from GPS and airspeed from the pitot-static system), you can calculate with and wind direction, and a compass heading.

              • GPS is receive only, there is no transmission and no danger to aircraft even if it is turned on. Chances are it turns GPS off just to satisfy clueless airline staff and consumers.

                Radio receivers aren't generally allowed. I assume this dates back from the era whne cheapass radios would piss out the IF and its considerable harmonics (linear? ha!) all over the spectrum to the point where it could interfere with the pilot's radio, so receivers got banned and this rule has been cargo-culted ever since.

                • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

                  Interesting. I've had the whole spectrum depending on the aircraft. Some as okay with WiFi and anything else, others wanted all electronics turned off completely.

            • by mikael ( 484 )

              You mean the M7 motion-detection chip?

              https://www.technologyreview.c... [technologyreview.com]

            • Could not the device continue to collect location data without emitting ref signals?

              Airplane mode disables transmitters, not receivers, so obviously it could. The comment I replied to was implying that airplane mode didn't do what it claims to, not that it didn't do things it doesn't claim to.

            • by gweihir ( 88907 )

              Sure, GPS is likely blocked, but an accelerometer can be used to do a pretty good extrapolation from a starting point, more so when you have accurate plans of the target. Of course, something need to report that data, but I expect applications that do this are already available and will become more common if people start blocking GPS and phone signals.

          • GPS still works in airplane mode, as it receives a signal, rather than broadcasting one. You think Location Services doesn't log that shit and upload it when you turn airplane mode off?
          • Re: Some kind of (Score:4, Insightful)

            by cyber-vandal ( 148830 ) on Saturday March 17, 2018 @12:11PM (#56275345) Homepage

            I could constantly monitor and analyse my network traffic or I could just save myself time and money and not buy something I don't trust.

            • I could constantly monitor and analyse my network traffic or I could just save myself time and money and not buy something I don't trust.

              And which mobile phone can you trust?

          • No need to trust. A cheap RF signal meter can tell you for sure.

            It can - so long as they aren't turning on the transmitters in the phone in short bursts once every minute or so. In that case you need something that can log those short bursts of RF over a specified band or bands. You might be able to put something together around SDR that would do that, but it would take some time and effort. AFAIK the only off-the-shelf solution would be one of the more sophisticated, (read "expen$ive"), spectrum analyzers.

            Even then, your phone might be receiving in stealth mode, in whi

            • No need to trust. A cheap RF signal meter can tell you for sure.

              It can - so long as they aren't turning on the transmitters in the phone in short bursts once every minute or so. In that case you need something that can log those short bursts of RF over a specified band or bands.

              The goal was to detect whether it was transmitting, not to log the transmissions. You can detect short bursts with a cheap RF signal meter, you just need to watch it. In fact, phones do transmit short bursts quite a bit, to avoid having to keep the transmitters powered up unnecessarily. They suck a lot of power, which drains your battery.

              Even then, your phone might be receiving in stealth mode, in which case there might be provisions for making it 'phone home' on demand.

              Perhaps, but now you're into stratospheric levels of paranoia. Actually, this sort of behavior would be pretty easy to detect just by watching battery levels while airplane

          • There is no need for the data to be transmitted in real time. It can be quietly collected and burst transmit once a day, once a week or whatever parameter you want to set.

            Is how certain bugs go undetected by sniffer gear, they don't transmit full time. ( Bonus, it also saves battery )

      • An Android on airplane mode actually collects more data as it scrambles to gain information. So everyone is cool with that since it's not connected right? Well guess what happens when plugged into your laptop or airplane mode is turned off? Yep uploads everything it gathered.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 17, 2018 @10:53AM (#56274969)

    The problem with this is the way crimes get prosecuted in the US. The DA will threaten you with a bunch of charges that will put you away for a long time if you don't plea bargin. It will cost a very large amount of money to defend yourself. So if you happen to be some random person in the area who LE or the DA thinks might have done it, even if you are innocent your life could be wrecked. Perople need to realize carrying tracking devices around with you incurs a small chance of having your life ruined and it might not be something you want to do.

    • Exactly - the US sentencing system is terminally fucked up, in a way that pushes people to plead guilty to crimes they're INNOCENT of. This serves nobody -- the real criminal is still out on the street, innocent lives are ruined, and the states pay to incarcerate innocent victims of the US injustice system.

      Better solution would be to erase a whole bunch of victimless crimes from the books (i.e. non-violent drug possession by adults, prostitution between consenting adults, gambling offenses) and require tha

    • Perople [sic] need to realize carrying tracking devices around with you incurs a small chance of having your life ruined and it might not be something you want to do.

      What's funny is that criminals will start to realize this as well and will turn off their cellphones. So all you'll have is innocent people who happened to be in the area.

  • Probable cause? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by msauve ( 701917 ) on Saturday March 17, 2018 @10:59AM (#56274985)
    "...no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, ..."

    What judge signed the warrant? They're a clear and present danger to the Constitution.
    • "...no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, ..."

      It's right there for you in the TFS:

      from any mobile devices that veered too close to the scene of a crime

      "Hey, there was a murder in New York City last weekend. Google's records show that you were also in NYC, along with millions of other potential suspects. That is enough probable cause for the police to beat you to a pulp."

      This is going to end like the former East Germany secret police, the Stasi. They were collecting so much information . . . that they couldn't even seriously analyze it all.

      Now if the police could broadcast the locations of crime scenes, we could al

      • "Hey, there was a murder in New York City last weekend. Google's records show that you were also in NYC, along with millions of other potential suspects. That is enough probable cause for the police to beat you to a pulp."

        I feel like, personally at least, how objectionable this is depends on how wide of an area they're targeting. "All of NYC" would obviously be, literally, too broad, but "within 20 yards at the time the murder occurred" seems reasonable. I don't know how small of a resolution the data can get here.

        I feel like objections to this need to focus on how it differs from things like a camera or witness seeing your car in the area and reporting the license plate.

        It does seem like it needs some specific rules aroun

        • Don't forget NYC's vertical space. If that 20 yards includes a large building, it could still be hundreds of clearly innocent people since GPS coords don't typically include height.
    • This search warrant is likely far too broad to pass Constitutional muster, unfortunately only a defendant can challenge a search warrant. In other words neither Google nor the ACLU have the standing to challenge the search warrant before it is executed. The only silver lining is that this tactic is not likely to end once someone is charged and they end up walking free because of it
      • In other words neither Google nor the ACLU have the standing to challenge the search warrant before it is executed

        Google should have standing, because complying with the warrant would make them accessories to a crime.

        At the very least, they can not comply, which (might) get them charged with something, and at which point they can take it upstream.

        Of course, SCOTUS is utterly corrupt WRT actually obeying the constitution, so that might not work, but as for Google having standing, it's entirely within reach.

      • This search warrant is likely far too broad to pass Constitutional muster

        really why? cell tower records, credit card transactions have been used for years in exactly the same way, as are CCTV, red light cameras etc etc.

    • The thing is, there WAS probable cause.

      This is like police getting a warrant for video surveillance recordings from a business next door to where a crime occurred. There is no presumption that the neighboring business did something wrong, or that the owner or any patron of that business did something wrong. The point of the warrant is to gather evidence relating to the crime that occurred.

      This kind of warrant seems reasonable to me, provided that due process is followed. There is no presumption of guilt of

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Nathan Freed Wessler, staff attorney with the ACLU's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, put it succinctly. "At the end of the day, this tactic unavoidably risks getting information about totally innocent people."

    Same could be said about public CCTVs.

  • by Jason1729 ( 561790 ) on Saturday March 17, 2018 @11:21AM (#56275091)
    It scares me that google, a greedy for-profit company, has all that personal data. I don't want them and their business partners to have it.

    Sure, I'd rather not give that data to law-enforcement either, but it's a lot less bad than google and friends having it.

    How are you okay sharing it with google and hundreds of "partner" companies, but somehow not okay with "guvurnment" getting access?
    • by Gravis Zero ( 934156 ) on Saturday March 17, 2018 @11:33AM (#56275161)

      How are you okay sharing it with google and hundreds of "partner" companies, but somehow not okay with "guvurnment" getting access?

      One group may throw an advertisement at you for 30 seconds even if you don't want the product. The other group may throw you in jail for 30 years even if you didn't do the crime.

      Magnitudes of impact matter.

      • by Actually, I do RTFA ( 1058596 ) on Saturday March 17, 2018 @01:05PM (#56275547)

        One group may throw an advertisement at you for 30 seconds even if you don't want the product. The other group may throw you in jail for 30 years even if you didn't do the crime.

        The advert group requires your cooperation. The government can arrest you regardless.

        • by dryeo ( 100693 )

          The advert group requires your cooperation. The government can arrest you regardless.

          Do they? Google seems to have trackers almost everywhere on the web and even being somewhat technically literate, it is hard to block them all, especially on a closed system like a cell phone and I don't know about Google but Facebook, which is also in the advertising business, seems to have shadow profiles of most everyone, whether they ever cooperated by signing up or not.

    • Fortunately Googles location data gathering can be turned off; For now at least.

      From a web browser it can be done from the "activity controls" settings, This is the easiest way since each android release seems to be burying the settings deeper and deeper

    • It scares me that google, a greedy for-profit company, has all that personal data.

      Then you should turn off location history, so they won't have it. With history off but location on, location data is only uploaded as needed to satisfy app requests and is not retained.

      Personally, I find location history to be very useful. I like being able to see where I was on any given day and time. I like it enough that I periodically go in and correct any errors in Google's guesses as to where I was while I still remember (there are a fair number of errors because for power efficiency GPS is used as

  • What if the person was using a Windows phone? /s

    Seriously, Just Google apps?

    Is it easier to serve a warrant to google than the local cellular companies?

    Because even if you have your location information turned off/disabled, your location can easily be tracked by the cell towers...

  • ... also bought ...

  • The future has arrived - and it's totalitarian. Congratulations!

  • "Do people understand that in sharing that information with Google, they're also potentially sharing it with law enforcement?"

    Sure! We always remove the battery of our devices when we go on a crime spree.

  • ... confiscating all the surveillance footage, both residential and commercial, in the area, so I don't have a problem with it.

    Smart devices behave in predictable ways. Owners are aware of those ways and can take actions to mitigate.

    It's a choice.

    • All the more reason to run your footage on a 24-hour wipe cycle if you're a store owner. If YOUR store gets robbed, you save it. If cops show up on a fishing expedition two months later, it's gone.
      • And this would enhance the business' revenue in what ways?

      • In what possible way is that in the local businesses interests? Insurance, profit and safety is enhanced by them keeping it for a much longer period, sometimes crimes aren't caught or noticed the day it happens as it is unlikely anyone has the time to sit and review their own recordings every single day. More like, "Oh fuck that $20k piece of equipment is gone, time to go back through the last few weeks of recordings to work out when it disappeared and who did it."
      • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
        The store will be offered better CCTV and to be part of a city police partnership if they network their private CCTV with the city.
        Every face and license plate is getting kept for years thanks to networked public private partnerships in city areas.
        That 24/7 CCTV capture is going to the city and police and is only limited by how much storage the police can budget for with a third party to keep the data.
        2 years for faces was the best guess years ago.
        Outside a city? The FBI will put a hidden camera on a
        • A store agreeing to that would require the assumption that cops are honest, which is often not correct.
    • It's a choice.

      Not if they're not aware of what they're choosing. It's called informed consent.

  • The really sad part is that anyone who isn't pretty dim KNOWS they are being tracked and will turn off location history, shield it, turn off the phone, or leave it behind when committing a planned crime. So such unconstitutional warrants in those cases are not only ineffective, they target the people most likely to NOT be involved.

    Of course, there are a lot of dim criminals out there, and unplanned crimes of passion for which it might work. But where do you draw the line? If it is OK to do in a murder or

    • by LostOne ( 51301 )

      I would actually go so far as to say that the majority of criminals are dim. We just don't hear about many of those cases (unless they are particularly funny or the stupidity is particularly egregious) since they are usually dead easy to solve. Things like criminal poses for the security camera on the way in to rob a place, with his face in full view. That sort of dim.

      But, to be fair, most people don't have a clue about location services, or the fact that their location is stored in the pictures they take,

  • Most of the cops I know/have known are just about bright enough to figure out early in life that they're never going to make a lot of money in fields requiring a lot of brain power. So they go for the one where they get power and a pretty good salary without spending a lot of money on schooling.

    An unfortunate corollary is that (as we've seen repeatedly), the people in charge of solving crimes generally aren't the sharpest knives in the drawer.

    So this leaves us in a situation where the police are constantly

  • For the government as well as the public to have the ability to severely observe all people at all times would be interesting. There would be huge benefits as well as losses. We are now about to confront new realities. Between cams and computers and standardizing electronic money as the only means of exchange we could bring crime to a very close to zero event. The catch is what would we do with the millions of people who currently commit crimes? Most people actually commit serious crimes but often a
  • by duke_cheetah2003 ( 862933 ) on Saturday March 17, 2018 @08:42PM (#56277535) Homepage

    Not all is at it seems. Not long ago, I was discussing this with some colleagues, the fact Google Maps has a timeline of everywhere I go, how long I was there, how long I drive to get from place to place etc.

    I concluded this tracking could be turned right around into a fantastic alibi. Since it tracks everything, every day, establish a normal pattern, for quite a bit of a time (a few years is preferable!), now, one day, leave your phone somewhere it's expected to be for a certain duration of time, while you go without it to commit a heinous crime. Return to collect phone and carry on. You could easily point to this data and say "I didn't do it, phone proves I'm innocent."

    The moral of the story? Don't trust that data. It is vastly easy for the common idiot to falsify. If I thought of it, millions of others did too, I'm not exceptionally clever.

  • The problem with this is that if a convicted arsonist happened to be in the area with their smartphone prior to the fire, police will come up with SOME story to "prove" the convicted arsonist did it. Juries are people and easy to fool especially when you've already fooled yourself. Looking for possible suspects prior to developing a strong theory with evidence you can use to verify the suspect afterhand is a recipe for convicting an innocent person. Once a suspect is found, there will be no effort to do any

  • One more reason NOT to use Google.

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