Government entities compelling technology companies to hand over user data has been known for some time. We documented in a previous post how Apple’s increased phone encryption really means nothing if you back up your data to iCloud.

However, there appears to be a new trend emerging among government entities. The so-called “reverse search warrant” is a true product of the digital age. This is not a hypothetical conspiracy ladened imagined situation but a practice which is occurring now. Here is one example:

432 Hill Street; Google Street View.

November 8th, 2016, the Raleigh Police Department responded to a 911 call regarding a shooting at 432 Hill Street.  When police arrived they found a deceased taxi driver who had been shot multiple times. 

March 8th, 2017 law enforcement seek and get a search warrant for data which Google may hold. Unlike other examples where account data search warrants targeted a specific person or specific user account; this search warrant targeted a specific area. More specifically:

For the time period of 6:00PM – 7:00PM on 11-7-2016 and 5:25PM – 6:25PM on 11-8-2016 all accounts within a 150 meter radius of 35.785556, -78.617145.

Except from the actual search warrant. Red highlights are added for emphasis.

There you have it. A drag-net search warrant. The warrant application does go on to discuss how a possible person of interest was seen on security cameras talking on a cell phone. However, what is discussed nowhere in this application is any reasoning which led law enforcement to believe that cellphone had Google related apps, the person using the phone even had a Google account.

One 150 meter line showing residential units being including in the search radius. 

150 meters is roughly 492 feet. Using Google (yes the irony is not lost on us), we can measure out 150 meters from the GPS coordinates stated in the search warrant. This radius encompasses which looks like apartment units and other medium density residential neighborhoods.  This does not mention any cars which happened to be driving by on the streets, pedestrian traffic which just happened to be in the area, etc. 

Why you should care.

Catching a potential murderer is a good thing. However, whenever the “greater good” argument is used to justify the sacrifice of personal freedom, privacy or other dearly held personal space it should be worthy of extreme scrutiny.  The likelihood is the majority of accounts returned by this search warrant had nothing to do with this crime.

However, a cheating spouse, heck even a jealous intimate partner, minors who weren’t where they said they would be, etc., and etc. could all be pulled into this net.  The list of private life details, circumstances which not criminal but private are at risk of being exposed to a very large audience. Because remember, that for the most part details of a criminal investigation sooner or later become public.  Evidence of this truth is the fact this search warrant is now a public record.

Perhaps you are not a jealous partner, a rouge teenager or a cheating spouse, but how would you feel if your information was posted connected to a crime you had nothing to do with? How would you like your neighbors to potentially know you visited a strip club? or your employer know you were visiting a competitors store?

The 4th amendment is very clear on when things and people can be searched and seized. Case law has built in a number of exceptions and clarifications. However, I fail to see how this search warrant could stand up under scrutiny when there was no probable cause offered the person of interest’s phone used Google, the person even had a Google Account or that Google was in any way associated with this crime. This seems to be a classic fishing expedition where it is assumed that because so many people use Google and have Google products on their phone that this person of interest must have it too. This my friends is a very slippery slope. 

You can read the entire search warrant here.