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North Carolina Police Issued Sweeping Warrants to Search Data On All Google Devices Near Murder Scene


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Police issued a warrant for devices surrounding a potential homicide.




Google was served at least four sweeping search warrants by Raleigh, North Carolina police last year, requesting anonymized location data on all users within areas surrounding crime scenes. In one case, Raleigh police requested information on all Google accounts within 17 acres of a murder, overlapping residences, and businesses. Google did not confirm or deny whether it handed over the requested data to police.


WRAL reporter Tyler Dukes found four investigations in 2017 where police issued these uniquely extensive warrants: two murder cases, one sexual battery case, and an arson case that destroyed two apartment complexes and displaced 41 people. Police routinely request information from technology companies—Google says it shares data with law enforcement about 81% of the time—but these specific cases are remarkable: Instead of finding a suspect, and then searching that person’s data, police are searching enormous amounts of data to pinpoint a potential suspect.





Warrant for data in an arson case in Raleigh


The warrants follow the same template: Police requested location data from all phones that were in the surrounding area of a crime scene, generally within an hour window of when the crime was committed. In the homicide and sexual assault warrant, police drew a box surrounding the scene of the crime, then requested the data for everyone within it. In the second homicide case, it was a circle.




Police highlighted a geographic area, requesting data for all devices within


Police in each case were requesting account identifiers, an anonymized string of numbers unique to each device, and time-stamped location coordinates for every device. Police wanted to review this information, narrow down their list, and then request user names, birth dates, and other identifying information regarding the phones’ owners. This information doesn’t reveal actual text messages or phone call logs. For that information, police would have to go through a separate warrant process.


Disturbingly, if Google has handed over data, it could be under court order not to notify individual users.


Google declined to say whether it released data in any of the Raleigh cases, but representatives from the ACLU and EFF reviewed the warrants, questioning Raleigh PD’s justification for the alarmingly broad search. For example, the arson and sexual battery cases don’t mention whether the attacker even had a cell phone. The warrants say police are also interested in locating potential witnesses, but does that necessitate this level of search?


Investigations are still ongoing for all four cases. So far, only one has resulted in a suspect being arrested.


More on this at WRAL







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Police are now asking Google for data

According to a new report from Raleigh, N.C. television affiliate WRAL, Google might have quietly helped local detectives in their pursuit of two gunmen who committed separate crimes roughly one-a-half years apart.




According to the story, Raleigh police presented the company with warrants not for information about specific suspects but rather data from all the mobile devices that were within a certain distance of the respective crime scenes at the time the crimes were committed.


In one of its homicide cases, Raleigh police reportedly asked Google to provide unique data for anyone within a 17-acre area that includes both homes and businesses.


In the other, it asked for user data across "dozens" of apartment units at a particular complex.


As the outlet notes, most modern phones, tablets and laptops have built-in location tracking that pings some combination of GPS, Wi-Fi and mobile networks to determine each device's position.


Users can switch off location tracking, but if they're using a cellular network or relying on WiFi to connect, their devices are still transmitting their coordinates to third parties.


Google hasn't responded to a request for more information that we'd sent off earlier today.

But in response to WRAL's investigation, a company spokesman declined to comment on specific cases or discuss whether Google has fought requests from the Raleigh investigators, saying only that: "We have a long-established process that determines how law enforcement may request data about our users.


We carefully review each request and always push back when they are overly broad."


According to a Raleigh Police Department spokesperson, the requested account data was not limited to devices running Google's Android operating system but rather all devices running any kind of location-enabled Google app.


The department began using the tactic after learning about a similar search warrant in California's Orange County, said this spokesperson.


Meanwhile, a Wake County district attorney tells WRAL that the data investigators have sought from Google contain only anonymized account numbers without any content included, though it sounds from her comments as though Google has been complicit in supplying further information when forced to do so.


"We're not getting text messages or emails or phone calls without having to go through a different process and having additional information that might lead us to a specific individual," she tells WRAL.


Google says that in recent years, it's been receiving disclosure requests for between 75,000 and 80,000 users every six months. As of January 2017, which is the last time it publicly updated its transparency report about such things, it says it produced data roughly 65 percent of the time that it was asked to do so.


Google doesn't publicly disclose what kind of data it provides to governmental and other authorities.


Further, in cases where it does hand over data, it may be under court order not to identify the individuals impacted.


Either way, the area-based search warrants that Raleigh detectives have sought seem to be a newer trend -- one that will undoubtedly concern Fourth Amendment advocates anew.


For one thing, in addition to potentially violating the privacy of Google users and subjecting them to unreasonable searches, one can imagine people being wrongly accused by sheer dint of being tied to a murder scene via cell phone location records.


In fact, it has happened already.


It's also easy to imagine that someone with nefarious designs might leave his or her cell phone behind.


Indeed, says WRAL's investigation, in two separate cases where Raleigh investigators have presented Google with area-based search warrants -- one involving a fire and another sexual battery -- there was not evidence that either the arsonist or attacker had a cell phone.

    This article originally appeared on TechCrunch.




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