Why smartphone data warrants are the future of criminal investigation

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Smartphone data leads to convictions

In the past, law enforcement agencies have used witness statements, physical evidence, and information gathering to solve crimes. Thanks to the proliferation of smartphones, that last area of investigation has become a lot more refined. And as a recent burglary case shows, smartphone data warrants may soon be as common as fingerprinting.

Last October, the home of an Eden Prairie, Minnesota couple was burglarized. More than $50,000 in goods used in supermarkets they own was stolen. And the homeowner, Oukham Oudavanh, had a fatal heart attack which was later ruled a homicide. However, because the intruders dressed in all black and wore gloves and masks, local police had difficulty drumming up leads. That’s where reverse location search warranting comes in.

Aware of the fact that Google maintains vast amounts of location data on its users, investigators went to court to get a smartphone data warrant. They asked a judge to order Google to identify all mobile devices that were active near the crime scene and the couple’s supermarkets.

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Detectives intended to use the couple’s home Wi-Fi network to create a geo-fence, a digital perimeter created using GPS data, to identify users who would have smartphone metadata linking them to the crime.

The warrant was authorized and three weeks after it was served, three suspects were arrested and charged.

Data-Driven Crime Solving is Becoming Increasingly Common

While the Eden Prairie robbery-homicide case is one of the most significant recent uses of tracking warrants, the technology is becoming common among law enforcement agencies.

In Pennsylvania, it was used to help with the arrest of an accused serial rapist last year. In North Carolina, the use of Google location data provided evidence that resulted in an arrest in 2017. And in 2018, the FBI got a smartphone warrant in hopes of identifying suspects involved in a sequence of Dollar Tree robberies.

Notably, Google is not the only tech company at the forefront of the data-driven crime solving revolution. E-scooter rental company Jump provided Texas police officers with information that proved to be instrumental in capturing a bank robber. And data from a Garmin GPS watch was used to convict a British criminal of murder. Moreover, Fitbit data helped California police charge a man with the murder of his stepdaughter.

The Privacy Implications

Although smartphone data warrants and other data-driven crime-solving solutions can be a powerful tool for law enforcement, their increasing usage has some privacy advocates concerned. The main issue is that because reverse location warrants allow authorities to scoop up all mobile data within a specific geographic area during a specific time, they cast too wide a net.

Representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union have argued that by handing law enforcement agencies data on potentially thousands of innocent people, tech companies are trampling on constitutional rights.

Conversely, law enforcement agencies have countered that smartphone data warrants have to go before a judge before being implemented. And that Google anonymizes data it gives law enforcement and will only disclose specific user details after a second search warrant is furnished.

As with all technologies that sit at the intersection of criminal justice and personal privacy, there are positives and negatives to reverse location search warrants. On the one hand, anything that helps the police catch the perpetrators of violent crimes is a good thing, especially in cases where suspect identification might not otherwise be identified.

And Google’s user agreement includes the disclosure that personal data may be turned over to the authorities via legal order.

On the other hand, giving law enforcement carte blanche to gather sensitive information on people because they happened to be near a crime scene has unsettling implications.

In fact, Google is currently facing a class-action suit from users who allege that the tech company makes it needlessly complicated to opt-out of data collection. However, what is not in doubt is the popularity of tracking warrants.

Since their first filing in August 2018, the Minnesota Police Department where the Eden Prairie burglary took place has asked the court to authorize 21 additional reverse location search warrants.