If You're Near the Scene of a Crime, Authorities Can Demand That Google Hand Over Your Data

Quiet fishing expeditions are being used to sort through potential suspects.


Last October, if you happened to be near the scene where some right-wing Proud Boys got into a fight with Antifa activists on New York City's Upper East Side, the Manhattan District Attorney's office may have collected your phone number and location at the time—without your knowledge.

Two members of the Proud Boys are on trial and several others have already pleaded guilty to rioting and disorderly conduct charges in connection with the fight. During the trial last week, an investigator with the DA's office testified that they had gotten what's called a "reverse location" search warrant demanding that Google cough up location information on people who had Android phones or used Google Maps near the scene. This warrant included many people who have no connection to the case—the technological equivalent of doing a house-to-house search for evidence connected to a crime in that neighborhood.

Gothamist reported that Google sent them an anonymized list of Google device identifications. Investigators cross-referenced location data and the IDs in order to narrow down those with multiple appearances in the area. They got the list to just two or three records that matched what they were looking for. On further investigation, though, they discovered that even those individuals were not connected to the case.

While this is the first time the public has been informed that these types of searches are happening in New York, the city didn't pioneer this technique. Aaron Mak over at Slate reported in February on the growing trend of police and prosecutors turning to Google with warrants in hand, demanding data. Authorities are collecting phone numbers and locations in large numbers, and then trying to narrow down the information to likely suspects.

Mak notes that these types of searches are more powerful and far-reaching than the StingRay devices police secretly use to trick phones into connecting to them rather than phone cell towers, allowing police to track location data. With these warrants, Mak explains,

They can retrieve much more reliable data from users of Android phones or certain Google apps. Google's location-tracking functions are often more precise than those of cell towers for tools like Maps and even Gmail. Plus, the company collects tracking data from phones that aren't connected to cell towers, such as those using GPS satellites or Wi-Fi. When police request location data from Google-connected devices, they've also been known to ask for more personal information, like browsing history and past purchases.

We do not have reliable numbers about how frequently this is happening. Mak notes police in Raleigh, North Carolina, state investigators in Orange County, California, and police across Minnesota use this technique.

Google has responded to Mak that they resist overly broad requests when possible and require warrants for their cooperation. And police defend their actions by noting that they're agreeing to the anonymized process until they narrow down to a couple of actual suspects.

Still, we should be concerned that police and prosecutors are quietly, secretly demanding phone data as a fishing expedition and that they're getting private information about thousands upon thousands of people who are not suspected of a crime. Gothamist and Slate both spoke with privacy advocates who have concerns. From Gothamist:

Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project at the Urban Justice Center, said the case illustrates what privacy advocates have long feared.

"When we sign up for Google, we shouldn't be signing away our core constitutional rights," he said. "When law enforcement uses these sort of digital dragnets they often will get it wrong, and innocent people will be swept up in the mix."

In a city as dense as New York, such digital sweeps could gather data on thousands of innocent cell phone users, noted Jerome Greco, a staff attorney in the Legal Aid Society's Digital Forensics Unit.

"That's like saying, we suspect that somebody hid a gun in an apartment in a building, so we're going to search everybody in the building, even though we know only one apartment actually has this," he said. He argued law enforcement warrants should be more focused.

Meanwhile, according to New York press reports, Apple doesn't track the location of their devices and therefore cannot provide this information to the police or prosecutors.

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  1. “When we sign up for Google, we shouldn’t be signing away our core constitutional rights,”

    No, but in fact you are signing away ALL your rights. Read the damn agreement.
    Don’t like it, don’t use Google. Be an outcast, it’s cool this year.

    1. Allow me to make a shameless plug for Signal: a secure messaging app that works seamlessly across Windows, Mac, Android and iOS. Its text messages, voice and video calls cannot be monitored by any government or corporation. And a great feature: disappearing messages that can be set to expire and be deleted automatically after up to a week.


      Install it and ask your friends, family and associates to use it.

      1. Aaaaaaaaaand Google just bought it.

      2. I love Signal but it wouldn’t have helped in this situation. The police demanded (and got) phone location data – data that’s managed by the operating system, not by any particular app. The only way you could have avoided this dragnet was to have your phone in airplane mode.

        Note that even airplane mode might not have been enough. There are reports that even though the phone is not transmitting, the antenna still receives, the phone still tracks the nearest towers and that in some cases, the phone reports that location history in a batch when you turn airplane mode off.

      3. Allow me to make a shameless plug that, no matter what ISP or phone carrier I use, the government respects the constitution and the limits on their power that the people have applied. They are supposed to work for us, after all, and not the other way around.

    2. So some of the Proud Boys are on trial and several have pleaded guilty but was any of the Antifa tried for the same charges? I doubt it and since ANTIFA wares black masks and hoodies along with black trousers it would be pretty hard to identify any of them. Besides they would leave their phones somewhere else so that they could NOT be tracked. But then they may have Apple phones and Apple will not give up that information while Google will give it willingly if it is a conservative who has the phone.

      1. You think hippster Antifas would go anywhere without their phones? How else are the going to boast of their resistance? And take video? And twit? Besides, Antifa only have the balls to riot in cities where the police are under stand down orders.

      2. I’m surprised this hasn’t been more of an issue here.

        I am not really up on who the “proud boys” are, but it seems that I remember this incident being one where they were having some sort of meeting and a bunch of Antifa protesters showed up to confront them. The police set up a line between them, but as the proud boys members came out of the building they were confronted by Antifa guys who had circled around the police line in order to confront them. The Antifa guys then physically assaulted the proud boys guys – who promptly beat the crap out of them.

        The New York government then went into action, targeting the proud boys for arrest and prosecution. I think they were very specific about that in the aftermath of the incident – that they were going to prosecute the proud boys, with no mention of even attempting to pursue charges against the Antifa guys who were reportedly the aggressors (even though they got beat down in the end).

        If I missed anything here, let me know… ’cause I’m just operating on memory and I may have gotten some or all of it wrong.

        But if that’s the story – should civil libertarians be up in arms? Don’t we object to people using violence to silence political dissent? And don’t we object even more to the use of the power of the state to weigh in on one side of a political dispute?

        Some of my take on this may be due to the history – there have been quite a lot of incidents of Antifa infringing on other group’s rights and using violence to prevent them from being heard which were tacitly supported by the local government.

        So maybe this isn’t actually one of those cases… but it sure seems like it.

  2. “Still, we should be concerned that police and prosecutors are quietly, secretly demanding phone data as a fishing expedition and that they’re getting private information about thousands upon thousands of people who are not suspected of a crime.”

    What? Me worry? (sarc font off, or not, depending on the interpretation)

    (I knew there was more than one reason I don’t want a smart-phone)

  3. Meanwhile, according to New York press reports, Apple doesn’t track the location of their devices and therefore cannot provide this information to the police or prosecutors.

    Of course Apple doesn’t track the location of their devices, they subcontract that job out.

    1. Apple is far better about privacy than Google is. Apple makes its money from selling hardware and associated software. Google makes its money by selling you, its product.

  4. Why does anyone use Google products anymore?

    1. Seriously. Use Apple IOS. They don’t track any of that stuff..

    2. You got me. I have removed everything.

  5. I admit I am struggling with this one a bit. I can see the general feeling of uneasiness about the govt (whether it is local, state or Feds) collecting this data.
    However, they are getting warrants. And provided that the data is anonymous until significantly narrowed down, is this a matter of govt truly intruding? Or is it just a more efficient way of doing normal investigating (i.e. canvassing the neighborhood and such).
    I really don’t know. I try to save the pants shitting for the cops who actually shoot dogs, kids, etc. And for drug and sex warriors.

  6. I’d suggest a constitutional amendment to deal with situations like this.

    Such an amendment could provide that “no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

    1. As far as the first case mentioned, they did have a warrant for the location data and anonymous IDs. Once the police did the work of going through matching data and IDs, they were down to 2 or 3 people. And then found out they weren’t even involved.
      I don’t think that is the same as going door-to-door searching houses. It might be more akin to going door-to-door and asking people if they were there and knew anything about the fight.
      I am certainly willing to be persuaded, but at the moment, I am not sure I see a constitutional issue here (yet).

      1. The problem is that warrant did not particularly describe the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

        The 4A specifically prohibits fishing expeditions and that is exactly what the police wanted.

      2. They had a warrant but it was not particularized so the judge should not have approved it.

        The real problem is that a long history of court rulings and precedent make it virtually impossible for anyone to challenge that bad ruling. With no successful challenge, the ruling is now precedent for future bad rulings.

        The reason it’s not akin to going door-to-door and asking people if they were there is that in your analogy, the people have the option to close the door and refuse to talk to the police. In this situation, the police went door-to-door and involuntarily fingerprinted everyone they found. They now claim to have thrown away all the fingerprints that didn’t match. 1. You were still violated by being involuntarily fingerprinted without particularized cause; and 2. do you believe them when they say they threw away the non-matching data?

    2. +10000

    3. The problem is, most people have no understanding of what a general warrant is, and even fewer even knew what the “writs of assistance” were.

      “Those who forget history are damned to repeat it”…. or something like that.

      1. Didn’t mean to flag this. Just trying to close the stupid pop up video.

    4. That’s the outdated amendment which only applies to analog data. Here’s the new version for digital data:

      ”The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures shall be violated, by warrants issued without probable cause, supported by oath and fabrication of any police officer, and vaguely describing the place to be searched and the persons to be killed so their things can be seized.”

  7. “If You’re Near the Scene of a Crime, Authorities Can Demand That Google Hand Over Your Data.”

    So much for a search warrant much less probable cause.
    Isn’t living a police state wonderful?

  8. Is there even a phone/OS that I can use besides Apple or Google? How can I protect my information without switching to an iPhone?

    1. For Android, root it and uninstall Google services or install an alternative OS like LineageOS without them. Their apps track you, not Android itself.

      1. Good point. I’m insulated from most apps except for Google apps in which case I have no choice. Unfortunate that the options are so limited.

      2. Yup….
        Except you will forfeit most of the benefits of the device. Almost all of the apps people like include tracking information – sold for the ads. And most of that goes back to Google and Facebook.

        So you could have a smart phone that makes calls and you could install a privacy-oriented browser so you can surf the web.

        And that may be about it. Well, there’s probably a camera app that won’t report on you.

        Other than that? I dunno…

        There are attempts to block all that information, but I’m not sure if any of them actually work. At least, not in a way that allows the apps that are trying to do all that tracking and reporting to work.

        1. Exactly. As for my situation I will choose convenience over privacy. I guess I can’t be too rueful but I also think it is unfortunate that there is not more demand/supply of privacy based software.

  9. “”Quiet fishing expeditions are being used to sort through potential suspects.””

    I’ve always figured that one day cops will use location data as a new way to canvass a crime scene. The list would give you potential witnesses.

    1. Its why the government wants to force all cell phone providers to link the phones to actual people and not be an anonymous service.

  10. …Apple doesn’t track the location of their devices and therefore cannot provide this information to the police or prosecutors.


  11. The Zman calls this something like “privatizing tyranny.” When something is unconstitutional for the government to do by itself, it just arranges for a “private” entity to do it for them.

  12. Was it Ben Franklin that said those that trade liberty for security will get neither? Not sure which is worse big government or big corporation…

  13. I’d suggest a constitutional amendment to deal with situations like this.

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