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DATE 2019-04-01


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Key: Value:

Key: Value:

DATE 2019-04-14
FROM Ruben Safir
SUBJECT Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] google dragnet

Tracking Phones, Google Is a Dragnet for the Police

The tech giant records people’s locations worldwide. Now, investigators
are using it to find suspects and witnesses near crimes, running the
risk of snaring the innocent.


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

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.
Jorge Molina in Goodyear, Ariz. Detectives arrested him last year in a
murder investigation after requesting Google location data. When new
information emerged, they released him and did not pursue charges. Alex
Welsh for The New York Times

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.

Law enforcement officials described the method as exciting, but
cautioned that it was just one tool.
The Privacy Project
The New York Times is launching an ongoing examination of privacy. We'll
dig into the ideas, history and future of how our information navigates
the digital ecosystem and what's at stake.

“It doesn’t pop out the answer like a ticker tape, saying this guy’s
guilty,” said Gary Ernsdorff, a senior prosecutor in Washington State
who has worked on several cases involving these warrants. Potential
suspects must still be fully investigated, he added. “We’re not going to
charge anybody just because Google said they were there.”

It is unclear how often these search requests have led to arrests or
convictions, because many of the investigations are still open and
judges frequently seal the warrants. 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. Google declined to
confirm precise numbers.

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.

‘‘There are privacy concerns that we all have with our phones being
tracked — and when those kinds of issues are relevant in a criminal
case, that should give everybody serious pause,” said Catherine Turner,
a Minnesota defense lawyer who is handling a case involving the technique.

Investigators who spoke with The New York Times said they had not sent
geofence warrants to companies other than Google, and Apple said it did
not have the ability to perform those searches. Google would not provide
details on Sensorvault, but Aaron Edens, an intelligence analyst with
the sheriff’s office in San Mateo County, Calif., who has examined data
from hundreds of phones, said most Android devices and some iPhones he
had seen had this data available from Google.
The site of the shooting in Avondale, a Phoenix suburb. Alex Welsh for
The New York Times

In a statement, Richard Salgado, Google’s director of law enforcement
and information security, said that the company tried to “vigorously
protect the privacy of our users while supporting the important work of
law enforcement.” He added that it handed over identifying information
only “where legally required.”

Mr. Molina, 24, said he was shocked when the police told him they
suspected him of murder, and he was surprised at their ability to arrest
him based largely on data.

“I just kept thinking, You’re innocent, so you’re going to get out,” he
said, but he added that he worried that it could take months or years to
be exonerated. “I was scared,” he said.
A Novel Approach

Detectives have used the warrants for help with robberies, sexual
assaults, arsons and murders. Last year, federal agents requested the
data to investigate a string of bombings around Austin, Tex.

The unknown suspect had left package bombs at three homes, killing two
people, when investigators obtained a warrant.

They were looking for phones Google had recorded around the bombing

The specific data resulting from the warrants in the Austin case remains
sealed. This illustration is based on the warrant’s description of the
process, but the dots do not represent actual phone locations.

After receiving a warrant, Google gathers location information from its
database, Sensorvault, and sends it to investigators, with each device
identified by an anonymous ID code.

Investigators review the data and look for patterns in the locations of
devices that could suggest possible suspects. They also look for devices
that appear in multiple areas targeted by the warrant.

They can then get further location data on devices that appear relevant,
allowing them to see device movement beyond the original area defined in
the warrant.

After detectives narrow the field to a few devices they think may belong
to suspects or witnesses, Google reveals the name, email address and
other data associated with the device.

Rich Harris / The New York Times

Austin investigators obtained another warrant after a fourth bomb
exploded. But the suspect killed himself three days after that bomb, as
they were closing in. Officials at the time said surveillance video and
receipts for suspicious purchases helped identify him.

An F.B.I. spokeswoman declined to comment on whether the response from
Google was helpful or timely, saying that any question about the
technique “touches on areas we don’t discuss.”

Officers who have used the warrants said they showed promise in finding
suspects as well as witnesses who may have been near the crime without
realizing it. The searches may also be valuable in cold cases. A warrant
last year in Florida, for example, sought information on a murder from
2016. A Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokeswoman declined to
comment on whether the data was helpful.

The approach has yielded useful information even if it wasn’t what broke
the case open, investigators said. In a home invasion in Minnesota, for
example, Google data showed a phone taking the path of the likely
intruder, according to a news report and police documents. But
detectives also cited other leads, including a confidential informant,
in developing suspects. Four people were charged in federal court.

According to several current and former Google employees, the
Sensorvault database was not designed for the needs of law enforcement,
raising questions about its accuracy in some situations.

Though Google’s data cache is enormous, it doesn’t sweep up every phone,
said Mr. Edens, the California intelligence analyst. And even if a
location is recorded every few minutes, that may not coincide with a
shooting or an assault.

Google often doesn’t provide information right away, investigators said.
The Google unit handling the requests has struggled to keep up, so it
can take weeks or months for a response. In the Arizona investigation,
police received data six months after sending the warrant. In a
different Minnesota case this fall, it came in four weeks.

But despite the drawbacks, detectives noted how precise the data was and
how it was collected even when people weren’t making calls or using apps
— both improvements over tracking that relies on cell towers.

“It shows the whole pattern of life,” said Mark Bruley, the deputy
police chief in Brooklyn Park, Minn., where investigators have been
using the technique since this fall. “That’s the game changer for law
A Trove of Data

Location data is a lucrative business — and Google is by far the biggest
player, propelled largely by its Android phones. It uses the data to
power advertising tailored to a person’s location, part of a more than
$20 billion market for location-based ads last year.

In 2009, the company introduced Location History, a feature for users
who wanted to see where they had been. Sensorvault stores information on
anyone who has opted in, allowing regular collection of data from GPS
signals, cellphone towers, nearby Wi-Fi devices and Bluetooth beacons.

People who turn on the feature can see a timeline of their activity and
get recommendations based on it. Google apps prompt users to enable
Location History for things like traffic alerts. Information in the
database is held indefinitely, unless the user deletes it.

“We citizens are giving this stuff away,” said Mr. Ernsdorff, the
Washington State prosecutor, adding that if companies were collecting
data, law enforcement should be able to obtain a court order to use it.

Current and former Google employees said they were surprised by the
warrants. Brian McClendon, who led the development of Google Maps and
related products until 2015, said he and other engineers had assumed the
police would seek data only on specific people. The new technique, he
said, “seems like a fishing expedition.”
Gary Ernsdorff, a Washington State prosecutor, has worked on several
cases involving Google location data. “We’re not going to charge anybody
just because Google said they were there,” he said. Chona Kasinger for
The New York Times
Uncharted Legal Territory

The practice raises novel legal issues, according to Orin Kerr, a law
professor at the University of Southern California and an expert on
criminal law in the digital age.

One concern: the privacy of innocent people scooped up in these
searches. Several law enforcement officials said the information
remained sealed in their jurisdictions but not in every state.

In Minnesota, for example, the name of an innocent man was released to a
local journalist after it became part of the police record.
Investigators had his information because he was within 170 feet of a
burglary. Reached by a reporter, the man said he was surprised about the
release of his data and thought he might have appeared because he was a
cabdriver. “I drive everywhere,” he said.

These searches also raise constitutional questions. The Fourth Amendment
says a warrant must request a limited search and establish probable
cause that evidence related to a crime will be found.

Warrants reviewed by The Times frequently established probable cause by
explaining that most Americans owned cellphones and that Google held
location data on many of these phones. The areas they targeted ranged
from single buildings to multiple blocks, and most sought data over a
few hours. In the Austin case, warrants covered several dozen houses
around each bombing location, for times ranging from 12 hours to a week.
It wasn’t clear whether Google responded to all the requests, and
multiple officials said they had seen the company push back on broad

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that a warrant was required for
historical data about a person’s cellphone location over weeks, but the
court has not ruled on anything like geofence searches, including a
technique that pulls information on all phones registered to a cell tower.

Google’s legal staff decided even before the 2018 ruling that the
company would require warrants for location inquiries, and it crafted
the procedure that first reveals only anonymous data.

“Normally we think of the judiciary as being the overseer, but as the
technology has gotten more complex, courts have had a harder and harder
time playing that role,” said Jennifer Granick, surveillance and
cybersecurity counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. “We’re
depending on companies to be the intermediary between people and the

In several cases reviewed by The Times, a judge approved the entire
procedure in a single warrant, relying on investigators’ assurances that
they would seek data for only the most relevant devices. Google responds
to those orders, but Mr. Kerr said it was unclear whether multistep
warrants should pass legal muster.

Some jurisdictions require investigators to return to a judge and obtain
a second warrant before getting identifying information. With another
warrant, investigators can obtain more extensive data, including months
of location patterns and even emails.
Mixed Results
Joseph Knight, the shooting victim in Arizona. The police have never
publicly disclosed a likely motive in his murder. Knight Family

Investigators in Arizona have never publicly disclosed a likely motive
in the killing of Joseph Knight, the crime for which Mr. Molina was
arrested. In a court document, they described Mr. Knight, a 29-year-old
aircraft repair company employee, as having no known history of drug use
or gang activity.

Detectives sent the geofence warrant to Google soon after the murder and
received data from four devices months later. One device, a phone Google
said was linked to Mr. Molina’s account, appeared to follow the path of
the gunman’s car as seen on video. His carrier also said the phone was
associated with a tower in roughly the same area, and his Google history
showed a search about local shootings the day after the attack.

After his arrest, Mr. Molina told officers that Marcos Gaeta, his
mother’s ex-boyfriend, had sometimes taken his car. The Times found a
traffic ticket showing that Mr. Gaeta, 38, had driven that car without a
license. Mr. Gaeta also had a lengthy criminal record.

While Mr. Molina was in jail, a friend told his public defender, Jack
Litwak, that she was with him at his home about the time of the
shooting, and she and others provided texts and Uber receipts to bolster
his case. His home, where he lives with his mother and three siblings,
is about two miles from the murder scene.

Mr. Litwak said his investigation found that Mr. Molina had sometimes
signed in to other people’s phones to check his Google account. That
could lead someone to appear in two places at once, though it was not
clear whether that happened in this case.

Mr. Gaeta was arrested in California on an Arizona warrant. He was then
charged in a separate California homicide from 2016. Officials said that
case would probably delay his extradition to Arizona.
Mr. Molina was released after nearly a week in jail. The police later
apprehended his mother’s ex-boyfriend. Alex Welsh for The New York Times

A police spokesman said “new information came to light” after Mr.
Molina’s arrest, but the department would not comment further.

Months after his release, Mr. Molina was having trouble getting back on
his feet. After being arrested at work, a Macy’s warehouse, he lost his
job. His car was impounded for investigation and then repossessed.

The investigators “had good intentions” in using the technique, Mr.
Litwak said. But, he added, “they’re hyping it up to be this new DNA
type of forensic evidence, and it’s just not.”
So many immigrant groups have swept through our town
that Brooklyn, like Atlantis, reaches mythological
proportions in the mind of the world - RI Safir 1998
DRM is THEFT - We are the STAKEHOLDERS - RI Safir 2002 - Leadership Development in Free Software

Being so tracked is for FARM ANIMALS and extermination camps,
but incompatible with living as a free human being. -RI Safir 2013
Hangout mailing list

  1. 2019-04-01 Gabor Szabo <> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] [Perlweekly] #401 - Next Saturday in Baltimore?
  2. 2019-04-01 From: "Free Software Foundation" <> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] Free Software Supporter Issue 132, April 2019
  3. 2019-04-01 Shorefront News <> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] [New post] LGBT Media Unhappy With Councilman
  4. 2019-04-01 Gabor Szabo <> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] [Perlweekly] #401 - Next Saturday in Baltimore?
  5. 2019-04-03 Ruben Safir <> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] Oh look webadmin is a security flaw
  6. 2019-04-04 Ruben Safir <> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] mostg important news of the week.. if not the year
  7. 2019-04-04 From: "IBM Customer Service [Masked]" <> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] IBM's Ongoing Commitment on Privacy
  8. 2019-04-04 IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society <> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] EMBS News and Events
  9. 2019-04-08 Ruben Safir <> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] Fwd: BioC2019 in NYC on Monday, June 24
  10. 2019-04-12 Ruben Safir <> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] bad security news
  11. 2019-04-08 From: "Dana Morgenstein, FSF" <> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] LibrePlanet 2019 wrap-up: Building the free
  12. 2019-04-08 Gabor Szabo <> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] [Perlweekly] #402 - Swiss Perl Workshop - 2019
  13. 2019-04-04 From: "American Museum of Natural History" <> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] Start Your Summer with an Online Science Course!
  14. 2019-04-05 From: "Free Software Foundation" <> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] Summer internships at the FSF! Apply by April 30
  15. 2019-04-13 Ruben Safir <> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] Still - the MTA Crisis
  16. 2019-04-14 Ruben Safir <> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] google dragnet
  17. 2019-04-15 Gabor Szabo <> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] [Perlweekly] #403 - Perl Toolchain Summit
  18. 2019-04-16 Ruben Safir <> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] love your cat...?
  19. 2019-04-17 IEEE Spectrum <> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] University Spotlight
  20. 2019-04-19 Ruben Safir <> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] Happy Peasach
  21. 2019-04-19 Ruben Safir <> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] Happy Peasach
  22. 2019-04-23 Ruben Safir <> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] rebeling against Digital Survalence
  23. 2019-04-23 Ruben Safir <> Re: [Hangout - NYLXS] rebeling against Digital Survalence
  24. 2019-04-28 Ruben Safir <> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] facebook - email - spying - nys attorney general
  25. 2019-04-28 Ruben Safir <> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] amazon opensource wars
  26. 2019-04-28 Ruben Safir <> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] =?utf-8?q?Goldman=E2=80=99s_Trading_Floor_Is_Go?=
  27. 2019-04-30 Jacob Salomon <> Re: [Hangout - NYLXS] May social meeting
  28. 2019-04-30 James E Keenan <> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] May social meeting
  29. 2019-04-29 Gabor Szabo <> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] [Perlweekly] #405 - Where are your blog posts?
  30. 2019-04-29 Gabor Szabo <> Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] [Perlweekly] #405 - Where are your blog posts?

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