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Tracking Phones, Google Is a Dragnet for the Police

22 April 2019

Not actually to do with writing (except for crime novelists), but interesting and creepy – a little Monday paranoia pick-me-up.

From The New York Times:

When detectives in a Phoenix suburb arrested a warehouse worker in a murder investigation last December, they credited a new technique with breaking open the case after other leads went cold.

The police told the suspect, Jorge Molina, they had data tracking his phone to the site where a man was shot nine months earlier. They had made the discovery after obtaining a search warrant that required Google to provide information on all devices it recorded near the killing, potentially capturing the whereabouts of anyone in the area.

Investigators also had other circumstantial evidence, including security video of someone firing a gun from a white Honda Civic, the same model that Mr. Molina owned, though they could not see the license plate or attacker.

But after he spent nearly a week in jail, the case against Mr. Molina fell apart as investigators learned new information and released him. Last month, the police arrested another man: his mother’s ex-boyfriend, who had sometimes used Mr. Molina’s car.

. . . .

The warrants, which draw on an enormous Google database employees call Sensorvault, turn the business of tracking cellphone users’ locations into a digital dragnet for law enforcement. In an era of ubiquitous data gathering by tech companies, it is just the latest example of how personal information — where you go, who your friends are, what you read, eat and watch, and when you do it — is being used for purposes many people never expected. As privacy concerns have mounted among consumers, policymakers and regulators, tech companies have come under intensifying scrutiny over their data collection practices.

The Arizona case demonstrates the promise and perils of the new investigative technique, whose use has risen sharply in the past six months, according to Google employees familiar with the requests. It can help solve crimes. But it can also snare innocent people.

Technology companies have for years responded to court orders for specific users’ information. The new warrants go further, suggesting possible suspects and witnesses in the absence of other clues. Often, Google employees said, the company responds to a single warrant with location information on dozens or hundreds of devices.

. . . .

The practice was first used by federal agents in 2016, according to Google employees, and first publicly reported last year in North Carolina. It has since spread to local departments across the country, including in California, Florida, Minnesota and Washington. This year, one Google employee said, the company received as many as 180 requests in one week.

. . . .

The technique illustrates a phenomenon privacy advocates have long referred to as the “if you build it, they will come” principle — anytime a technology company creates a system that could be used in surveillance, law enforcement inevitably comes knocking. Sensorvault, according to Google employees, includes detailed location records involving at least hundreds of millions of devices worldwide and dating back nearly a decade.

The new orders, sometimes called “geofence” warrants, specify an area and a time period, and Google gathers information from Sensorvault about the devices that were there. It labels them with anonymous ID numbers, and detectives look at locations and movement patterns to see if any appear relevant to the crime. Once they narrow the field to a few devices they think belong to suspects or witnesses, Google reveals the users’ names and other information.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

A quick search disclosed a couple of interesting articles about erasing your mobile history. PG can’t assess the efficacy of these solutions because they rely on whether large organizations who create software that exists on your mobile phone really erase all the history they have acquired about you or not.

How to stop Google from tracking everything you do online

How to Clear History on an iPhone

If you would like to make certain your phone won’t collect location information when you’re not actively using it, you can acquire a Faraday Bag to prevent your phone from sending or receiving electronic signals so long as it is in the bag. A Faraday Bag is a smaller version of a Faraday Cage.

During his brief excursion into electronic tracking, PG learned that police are urged to place cell phones and laptops they have seized as evidence in criminal investigations inside Faraday Evidence Bags to protect them from being remotely erased or broadcasting their locations to bad guys and bad gals.

Logic Bombs

In true spy vs. spy traditions, Faraday Evidence Bags may not solve all evidence preservation problems.

From Forensic Magazine:

The Faraday bag will not prevent the device from internal data alteration by items such as logic bombs. A logic bomb is set to go off if certain conditions are met. If a person was supposed to simultaneously press a set of keys daily to keep a destructive program from running on the cell phone, this would be one example of a logic bomb. The phone that was seized from someone may be protected from outside control of hackers with the use of a Faraday bag, but the phone may be victim to a logic bomb if certain conditions are not met while the phone is in possession of the CCE.

Link to the rest at Forensic Magazine

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13 Comments to “Tracking Phones, Google Is a Dragnet for the Police”

  1. I have a cell phone in case I need a — wait for it — phone.

    It’s a dumb phone, one of those pay as you go, and as it’s not hands-free it’s turned off when I’m driving. (Hard to track a phone that isn’t hitting the cell towers …)

    I have it for three reasons. 1) If the car I’m in dies/breaks down I can call for help. 2) If I’m out of town I can be reached by those that need to (all other numbers I know to be junk/spam.) 3) when I’m sent to the store with a ‘list’ I can call and say ‘Your list says ‘this’, I’ve found ‘that’ and ‘else’ – am I even in the right isle? 😉

  2. Sounds like a good reason to never get a cellphone in the first place. Or at least to leave it at home before going out to commit a felony.

  3. Hate to be the oddball here, but I can see great benefit in all this. I don’t care if the cops learn where I am in their effort to solve a crime, frankly. But then, I come from a law enforcement family.

    • Richard Hershberger

      The issue isn’t when this is being used to catch murderers. It is when this is being used to catch people engaged in doubleplus crimethink.

    • C Hope Clark,
      In my experience, cops divide the world into cops and criminals. You may protest, but it’s true.

  4. Yes, Antares, we’ll have to agree to disagree here. Not everyone understands the choices of an LEO.

    And Richard Hershberger, I wasn’t thinking/talking murderers. My spouse retired from being a federal agent for 30 years (predominantly white collar), and my son is with Las Vegas Metro (predominantly blue collar crime). Whether you are talking white collar or blue collar crime, I still think this is a wonderful tool.

  5. Logic bomb, eh? I can think of several variations used in fiction:

    — On “Lost,” where Desmond Hume had to keep pushing a button at certain intervals every day and night. If I recall correctly, something bad happens when he finally decides to stop pushing the button …

    — A mystery by Sharyn McCrumb (I think) where a character unwittingly drinks arsenic in her tap water every day. She only gets ill when she switches to bottled water. This helps her solve a mystery as to whether or not a 19th century ancestor murdered her husband. The ancestress did: by one day sprinkling powdered sugar on her husband’s beignets instead of the arsenic she’d used every day before then. The husband thought of arsenic as a kind of little blue pill, so he wanted to be poisoned. Apparently, you can survive daily arsenic doses so long as you don’t stop. I think the Harkonnens do something similar to Thufir Hawat in “Dune.”

    I like those kinds of twists.

  6. What Google is doing with the cellphones sounds like a pre-cursor to “smart dust.” In the sci-fi mystery, “Great North Road,” some British detectives search through “smart dust,” on the streets that are the most likely route to the site where the body of a clone was dumped. The “dust” provides an image or video of motorists traveling those roads. However, the killers are smart enough to rip out the smart dust along the most likely routes to the dumping site.

    At some point, the tech will advance to the point that it won’t be enough to avoid carrying cell phones.

    On the flip side, there’s that moment in “13 Hours,” where some terrorists simply drive up to the embassy in Benghazi, and use their cell phones to get accurate bombing coordinates. So you may not bring the cellphone, but the cellphone may be brought to you …

    And while you could lobby Congress for laws against the surveillance state, I’d bet that the crime investigation applications alone means there’d be back doors to those rules that you could drive a siege engine through. Catching the next Bernie Madoff or Ted Bundy would make it worth it for a lot of people — security vs. liberty anyone?

    At what point would an ordinary person be considered a criminal merely for avoiding surveillance? Cops have seized money from innocent people who carry cash in briefcases to buy cars or houses or whatever, because they don’t trust banks. The victims are often from countries where banks are a polite fiction, but the cops think carrying thousands of dollars in cash equals criminal intent. Some employers want to see your Facebook page before they hire you. What, no social media? What are you, a weirdo? No cell phone? Who are you, a copycat Unabomber?

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