North Carolina Police Used “Reverse Warrants” to Collect Cellular Location Data From Google and Android Users Near Crime Scenes

The Raleigh, North Carolina police department issued “reverse warrants” to Google for the purpose of collecting cellular location data of people near a crime scene. WRAL, a Raleigh television station and NBC affiliate, reported that the Raleigh police department issued four “reverse warrants” in 2017, seeking information not tied to a specific suspect but from any people with Google accounts, including users of Android operating systems and location-enabled Google apps, at or near the scene of a crime. According to WRAL’s report, Raleigh police requested anonymized user data from a specific geographic area encapsulating the crime scene during a period of time covering the commission of the crime. The police would then use this anonymized list to compare time-stamped location data to the location of the crime. With this filtered list, police then sought “contextual data points” to further narrow down the list of potential suspects. At that point, a Wake County judge was satisfied that the police had enough probable cause to demand Google provide specific account information of the potential suspects identified by police.

Google reported that in just the first half of 2017, 5,201 search warrants were issued on Google, affecting 10,174 users. In 85% of cases, some data was produced to law enforcement. Google has maintained that the company pushes back when any request for information is overly broad.

Defense attorneys and civil liberties advocates are mixed as to the proper balance of civil rights and public safety. More often than not, people involved in the “reverse warrants” are unaware of their involvement. “Reverse warrants” are typically issued alongside orders not to disclose until the court authorizes such disclosure. Google’s policy is to notify its users via email before any information is disclosed. In cases where orders not to disclose are issued, Google claims it provides delayed notice to users after the order is lifted.

WRAL reported that an arrest was made in only one of the four cases in which Raleigh police utilized “reverse warrants.” In that case, Google’s data was provided months after the arrest.

Additional Reading

North Carolina police issue broad warrants for data from Google users near crime scenes, ABA Journal (March 27, 2018)

To find suspects, police quietly turn to Google, (March 15, 2018)

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