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Canada Cellphones Communications Crime Privacy

Police Used Cell Tower Logs To Text 7,500 Possible Crime Witnesses (www.cbc.ca) 153

"Investigators are calling it a 'digital canvass' -- the high-tech equivalent of knocking on thousands of doors for information," reports the CBC, describing how an Ontario police department sent text messages to 7,500 potential witnesses of a homicide using phone numbers from a nearby cell tower's logs. Police obtained the numbers through a court order, and sent two texts -- one in English, and another one in French -- asking recipients to "voluntarily answer a few simple questions..." Slashdot reader itamblyn writes: On one hand, this seems like the natural progression from the traditional approach of canvassing local residents by putting up flyers and knocking on doors. On the other hand, I think one can reasonably ask -- Are we OK with this approach...? Do we want this to happen whenever there is a major crime?
The article adds that the police force "will keep the numbers on file until the killing is solved, officers said at a news conference on Wednesday... Investigators will also consider calling the numbers of people who don't respond voluntarily, but they would be required to obtain another court order to do so."
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Police Used Cell Tower Logs To Text 7,500 Possible Crime Witnesses

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    Canvassing door to door involves public knowledge and eyes. Anyone can do it.

    I, a civilian, can't just fish for cell logs when I want to contact people who were in a particular area at a particular time.

    This sort of shit is why I wouldn't offer witness testimony to the police - no matter how much sympathy I have for a victim, I am not in the slightest bit convinced that the police have society's interests at heart, and would rather they wasted time on a more difficult investigation than receive help.

    • by BlackPignouf ( 1017012 ) on Sunday October 30, 2016 @11:50AM (#53178925)

      +1.
      I was a witness once, never again. The police took a picture of me and send it to the victim, just to make sure I wasn't the culprit. She said "maybe", so I spent a night in a cell. You don't want to be falsely accused of something just because the local police station wants to improve the stats and you're the only person they could find who was near the crime scene.
      ACAB.

    • Fuck the police. All the time I have needed them, they have been less than helpful, and when I actually helped them (once by yanking off a woman who was pummelling a cop's back, and once by holding open a subway train doors so they could catch their perp), I never got as little as a "thank you". Fuck those entitled assholes. They really think we are shit, so let’s return the compliment.
    • by tzanger ( 1575 )

      I disagree; they received anonymized cell tower data showing which phones had pinged off of a particular tower between certain hours. I'm okay with this, just as I am okay with them having access to the entire DMV database that the public does not have access to.

      I think, however, that I would be more comfortable with the police not receiving a list of numbers. I would feel more comfortable with the police having to pay the carrier to send a specific, one-time SMS to all the numbers that matched their specif

  • ...yep, yet another nail in the coffin for freedom. If youre near the crime scene - you COULD be involved. And cops dont have a reputation for nailing someone to be used as a scapegoat, now do they?

    Im reminded of those entrapment methods that certain states are so fond of using, Hi, Im Chris Hansen...why dont you have a seat right here. (Brings in 18+ decoy). Same with open car-decoys with the keys left in the ignition. Where does the limit go tomorrow?

    Well, he was near the victim...weve logged his/her
    • by Anonymous Coward

      We already have guilty until proven inocent. At least in Portugal and pretty much around Europe but only if the victim it's the Goverment.
      If the goverment believes that you have hidden earnings. You get a tax bill for the amount they want then you have to prove that you didn't got the money and opening your bank statements it's not enough because you could be using somebody else as proxy also, if the bill it's less than 5000 euros the court it's skippen and the judge it's the IRS itself. Since this law chan

      • When it comes down to money, we have that in Sweden too. Recently a well known blogger had to pay a fortune in "fake taxes" because she/he was believed to have huge earnings on the blog but couldnt disprove or prove anything.
    • "If youre near the crime scene - you COULD be involved"

      Er, yes. If you are near the crime scene you COULD be. That is why police interview people, you know, that are near the crime scene. And yeah, this isn't entrapment. Another anti-cop asshole.
      • "If youre near the crime scene - you COULD be involved" Er, yes. If you are near the crime scene you COULD be. That is why police interview people, you know, that are near the crime scene.

        Define near.

        Cell phone tower location methods are accurate to around .75 square mile. https://transition.fcc.gov/psh... [fcc.gov]

        Now let's take say, New York City, with it's over 27 thousand people per square mile https://www1.nyc.gov/site/plan... [nyc.gov]

        So let's say half of these people aren't using a phone for some reason. It is still pretty easy to come up with a hellava lot of possible witnesses/suspects for a crime. Regardless, that is a hellava lot of suspects that have to be eliminated from suspicion in some

        • Do the phone companies keep records of detailed triangulation data for every customer, and if so, how often is it polled? Most likely, all they have is the cell tower the phone was connected to at the time, and a typical tower has a range of about 1km, a bit less in built-up areas.

          • Do the phone companies keep records of detailed triangulation data for every customer, and if so, how often is it polled? Most likely, all they have is the cell tower the phone was connected to at the time, and a typical tower has a range of about 1km, a bit less in built-up areas.

            I don't know how long they keep them, I suspect a fair while because the storage of all the records doesn't take up a huge amount of space, and there was a case of a Florida man (isn't is always Florida man?) http://www.techtimes.com/artic... [techtimes.com] but you take a triangulation of three towers receiving the phone, and there you have it. In a built up area that requires more towers, in principle you'd be more accurate, but you are dealing with signal strengths and propagation effects, so that little over a kilomet

        • "Nothing wrong with getting location data from a suspect, or even looking over phone logs for data, but turning everyone in the area into a witness/suspect is just so inefficient that you might as well just drag everyone in a square mile of a crime in for questioning."

          Isn't this what happens when the police reach out to the local news and asks for help? They are potentially asking hundreds of thousands of people if they witnessed the crime and to provide information.

          • "Nothing wrong with getting location data from a suspect, or even looking over phone logs for data, but turning everyone in the area into a witness/suspect is just so inefficient that you might as well just drag everyone in a square mile of a crime in for questioning."

            Isn't this what happens when the police reach out to the local news and asks for help? They are potentially asking hundreds of thousands of people if they witnessed the crime and to provide information.

            Quite a difference between getting the logs, then contacting anyone who might have been in the area. And even though the answers are "voluntary" I suspect that anyone who refuses to reply will be considered at least a little more interesting. Which is a world of difference than broadcasting to no one in particular, and hoping for replies.

            Which to me just makes for a lot of investigation that isn't likely to lead anywhere.

          • by sims 2 ( 994794 )

            Why do you have a dead link in your sig?

      • by sjames ( 1099 )

        The problem is that if you admit you were in the area you tend to become the prime suspect. Then you're up for a nice enhanced interrogation where you get sleep deprived and dehydrated until you're ready to confess to being the gunman on the grassy knoll. That's why more and more people won't talk to police.

    • If youre near the crime scene - you COULD be involved.

      I was a little surprised that you've been modded troll here. This whole exercise brings up some questions. What if a witness doesn't have a phone? What if it was turned off? Should potential witnesses - that means all of us - be required to have wireless phones and required to have them turned on just in case we witness a crime? Are we then liable to be hauled in for interrogation and required to alabi what we were doing in the area? This is a pretty wide net they are casting

    • Im reminded of those entrapment methods that certain states are so fond of using, Hi, Im Chris Hansen...why dont you have a seat right here. (Brings in 18+ decoy). Same with open car-decoys with the keys left in the ignition. Where does the limit go tomorrow?

      There are anti-entrapment laws in place. The police aren't allowed to persuade you to do something you wouldn't normally do.

      If you see a car with the keys in it and decide to drive away on the spot then it isn't 'entrapment'. You're a fucking criminal, period.

    • by uncqual ( 836337 )

      Leaving keys in the ignition of decoy car is not "entrapment" in any way. The law doesn't say that you are allowed to steal something just because it's easy to take.

      The 18+ year old decoy seems a bit more problematic. After all, at least in the US, it's not illegal for some middle age creep to fantasize about sex with underage individuals and it's not illegal for them to play out that fantasy with someone who is actually over 18. This is the case regardless of if the other party is aware, or unaware, of th

  • Slippery slope (Score:4, Insightful)

    by markdavis ( 642305 ) on Sunday October 30, 2016 @07:54AM (#53178205)

    And where will this type of thing end? What level crimes will justify such privacy invasions? To me, this just sounds a lot like spam.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      You carry around a location-tracking device and you are worried about privacy? What fools.
      • by Anonymous Coward

        1. Why does carrying a GPS-enabled device require me to give up any rights?

        2. In this cases, they were not using GPS. They are using cell tower data.

      • You carry around a location-tracking device and you are worried about privacy? What fools.

        I've found that almost no one knows how the cellular system works. It's some pretty cool technology. But for us to get that important telemarketer call when we are a thousand miles away from home, the system has to know where we are. So little ET in our pocket phones home quite often.

        • by Altrag ( 195300 )

          Heh. The sad thing is, the telemarketer probably has a better time tracking you than the cops do. At least in the US. John Oliver did a segment on that a few months ago (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-XlyB_QQYs.)

          • Heh. The sad thing is, the telemarketer probably has a better time tracking you than the cops do. At least in the US. John Oliver did a segment on that a few months ago (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-XlyB_QQYs.)

            The police usually only want to track others when working a crime. The marketers want to sell you shit. I've found the busines of trying to text you ad when your in a store, or nearby, or wasn't there an article in here about a plan to use marketing data to custom present ads on billboards?

            We need to come up with a spoofing system to have millions of people appear to frequent porn sites and goatse, and see what the billboards start showing.

    • Re:Slippery slope (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 30, 2016 @08:16AM (#53178253)

      The OPP went to a judge to obtain permissions to do this, the judge was explained that firstly they wanted to get a court order to receive the Cell tower data from the providers and told the judge their intended use to send texts to users. This was done through the court system as required. It should be noted that it's not much different than Amber Alert texts sent out in bulk requesting information.

      The more interesting component from a legal standpoint will be how this plays out and if people feel coerced and if that's a factor in any court case resultant from it.

      • by davecb ( 6526 )

        The courts may need to put further protection in place. Three might be
        - have the text released to a third party sworn to confidentiality, possibly the telco
        - have the reply address the local crimestoppers, an arms-length body
        - require the list be destroyed after use.

        • by Mashiki ( 184564 )

          The courts may need to put further protection in place

          Won't work like that. This will require one of two things, either a new law or a new provision under the privacy act(federal). Or a case relating to this and trolling of information to the SCC and the actions of the OPP in gaining the information/use of the information being considered overly broad and in turn meaning that it can't be used. Something similar happened a couple of years ago with exigent circumstances and it being struck from Canadian law by the SCC.

          • by davecb ( 6526 )
            Not that unusual: it pretty much worked that way in the TekSavvy case, for example. The court was sensitized to the risk of "speculative invoicing" on the part of the complainant, and put controlls on the data being released. According to CanLII, the troll seems to have given up at that point.
            • by Mashiki ( 184564 )

              Single case, and directly relating to that case. Also keep in mind that the TS case only applies to Ontario. If you want broad coverage it has to go higher, or the law has to change.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        I'm on the side of the police with this one. They are trying to solve a murder and help a family out. A text message can be ignored. Going through the courts for a warrant for the information is the proper channel. If people have any issues, it should be with the collection/retention of the data in the first place.

        • Like I said above, where does it end. Perhaps *a* text message doesn't bother you. But what about when it is 10 a day? When it wakes you from a nap? Don't think that is possible? I do. It is, indeed, a form of spam. Text messages demand attention- not to the level of a phone call, but far, far, far more invasive and annoying than an Email or a letter.

          At least they got a warrant... but we know how that evolves just by reviewing history.

          • And yet, far less intrusive than the police performing an old-fashioned door-to-door canvassing.
            • > And yet, far less intrusive than the police performing an old-fashioned door-to-door canvassing.

              Not really. Because they are not going to perform a canvassing to thousands of doors. They would actually do some thinking and analysis FIRST and then contact the people most likely to be relevant. But when it is easy to just shoot out thousands of text messages and hope that maybe 1% actually hit relevant people, guess what they will do?

              • Exactly. More targeted than blanket TV or Radio ads, more efficient than going door to door, and far less intrusive to boot. And utterly ignorable if you have nothing to contribute, or choose not to contribute.
    • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
      The same way it ended in the UK. Files finding their way into the hands of anyone who can pay.
      "Journalists caught on tape in police bugging" (21 September 2002)
      ".. obtaining information from a private detective agency which in turn paid corrupt officers for confidential police material." https://www.theguardian.com/uk... [theguardian.com]
    • by Eloking ( 877834 )

      And where will this type of thing end? What level crimes will justify such privacy invasions? To me, this just sounds a lot like spam.

      What's sort of conspiracy you're cooking right now?

      As someone mentioned in the last /. post on the subject, this is roughly the digital equivalent of police knocking on doors to ask questions. Do they need a warrant for this? No. The fact that the police need a warrant to text potential witness is, IMO, what's surprising (but in a good way). And between receiving the police at the front door or receiving a text. I guess we could all agree which one invade your privacy more.

      As long as it does just that, send

    • by Kjella ( 173770 )

      And where will this type of thing end? What level crimes will justify such privacy invasions? To me, this just sounds a lot like spam.

      Well you can tell it's a last ditch attempt by the fact that he was killed in December last year and they're doing this now. If it's more than two weeks ago I'm pretty much down to checking calendars to see if I had any particular appointment or event that makes the day stand out, otherwise most Mondays are Garfield days, Tuesday to Thursday just another work day, Friday is TGIF, Saturday may or may not be memorable and Sunday mostly chilling. If you ask me what I did Tuesday three weeks ago I might easily

    • And where will this type of thing end? What level crimes will justify such privacy invasions? To me, this just sounds a lot like spam.

      Remember though, that the very nature of using a cellular phone, you are putting out a lot of location data, even when not using the phone. You are located and logged within a little less than a square mile. Its inherent, and the only way to avoid it is either turning the phone off when not in use, and putting it in a metal box, or simply not having one. BTW, don't leave the phone on when doing this because it will use maximum power trying to phone home, and your batteries will go dead pronto.

      But if yo

  • by Anonymous Coward

    A story I've heard:
    A man had his coat stolen. He called a police, gave a statement, was thanked, end of story.
    In a few months the man applied for a promotion which was declined. When he asked for the reason, he was told it was because a few months ago he was mixed up in a coat-theft case...

    • but that wouldn't happen. The police don't publish the names of victims. Your anecdote doesn't work. It's kinda like when people say the gov't has a monopoly on violence. It sounds right (the police, military, etc) but when you think about it self defense means they don't really. And both the police & military are heavily regulated. All allowed violence is.

      I think the problem here is tracking. It reminds us how much privacy we give up by carrying cell phones. Personally I'm much more concerned with w
  • The summary implies that the text receiver is not required to respond to the LEOs' text message. What happens if one does not respond? Does one receive "special attention"? What happens if the LEOs make it a requirement that one respond? What if penalties are imposed on those who don't respond? Having watched a progression from voluntary participant in governmental activities to required activities, I would not be surprised that mandatory participation would become the norm. A repressive government st
    • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
      A health report is coordinated to find out why the person is not able to work their phone.
      During the health exam and simple phone function tests the case questions can be asked.
  • by gordguide ( 307383 ) on Sunday October 30, 2016 @08:53AM (#53178349)
    I think the real question here is why are they keeping logs so old? The probable victim went missing almost a year ago (Dec. 17, 2015).
    • by Mitreya ( 579078 )

      why are they keeping logs so old?

      $$$
      They were planning to sell (monetize) this data somehow.

  • by lbalbalba ( 526209 ) on Sunday October 30, 2016 @09:11AM (#53178407)
    Since the cell tower's logs and phone numbers were obtained legally and transparently through a court order, I don't particularly see the problem here. I would if they had been obtained without a court order, in secret, by using a hack or a stingray device or something similar, but that isn't the case here.
    • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Here's the problem. On a local station (I live in that city), they said that the police were well aware that they could be texting the murderer by doing this. If nothing comes through, they may seek another court order to get names and addresses and interview everyone who did NOT reply to the text message.

      I have a problem with that part.

      • On a local station (I live in that city), they said that the police were well aware that they could be texting the murderer by doing this.

        Well, obviously. Since the murderer was likely close to the scene of the crime. So what?

    • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
      Thats 1000's of people who will now understand that for any legal issue they pass on any day over the next years they will be contacted.
      Passing the wrong protest, standing near a person on a watch list. The ability to reach out and start a chat down will be a lot more simple than any mass court order.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 30, 2016 @09:43AM (#53178485)

      No, the reason people find this creepy is because, out of nowhere, they received a text from the police that says:
      We know where you were that day.

      You don't find it scary that the people authorized to use violence and kidnapping are stalking you?

      • You don't find it scary that the people authorized to use violence and kidnapping are stalking you?

        You know this story isn't from the USA right?

    • by ruir ( 2709173 )
      Change your number, problem solved.
  • by XSportSeeker ( 4641865 ) on Sunday October 30, 2016 @09:45AM (#53178489)

    We're talking about Canada, where Blackberry not long ago has given encryption keys to the Canadian Mounted Police that gave access to ALL messages from non enterprise users, and this case seems all but forgotten with the company releasing new phones supposed to be the most secure phones ever.

    http://www.theverge.com/2016/4... [theverge.com]

    So yeah, to me it kinda sounds like a slippery slope. But nothing in comparison to what was already done.

    The fact that Blackberry is still alive and well (as much as the company can be on their own merits), never had a public outcry after what they did, and that the case seems to be forgotten with tons of people still using and praising the company for their efforts... even after the CEO explicitly supported the idea with a vague public comment... I think it's pretty clear that something like what was described in this post would be pretty ok.

    http://blogs.blackberry.com/20... [blackberry.com]

    Having access to numbers located in the immediate vicinity of a crime isn't all that much in comparison to having access to the messaging content of an indiscriminate list of costumers of a certain class from a certain brand of phones.

    Would I be ok with this? No, I wouldn't... like I said, slippery slope. At least this case was handled properly with a court order and all, and a message to respond is not that much of a bother, but anyone can see how actions like that can go wrong pretty fast. In a way, it's still relatively indiscriminate based on mobile location - it doesn't mean by any stretch of the mind that a person is suspect of anything, but they are still being targeted.

    These days, it doesn't sound like that much of a jump going from requiring a court order to do that and doing it without one, doesn't sound that much of a jump from getting phone numbers to getting private content, and it might not be that much of a jump going from sending messages asking for cooperation to outright pre-emptively arresting people. Sure, hard to imagine the police and judges making such a jump and being this irresponsible - but then again, we have enough proof how overreaching they can become.

    I know lots of people won't get the base concept, but essencially mobile companies are revealing private information - for a good cause, yes, and at a minor level in this case, yes. But let's say that in the list is someone who does not want his or her location disclosed at the time of the crime, not being involved with it, for some reason. This is one problem with indiscriminate targeting.

    I would be ok with helping the course of an investigation, I would not be ok with mobile companies logging and releasing private information. As for Blackberry, of course, the company is dead to me. Has been for quite a while now. But it's ridiculous how people still defend it.

  • Those that didn't respond? Put them on the watch list.
  • What use is this really? Your going to text 7000 random people looking for info over a year old? You're going to waste so much time sifting through useless non relevant information that way.

    Also who responds to random texts claiming to be police? I don't answer texts from numbers I don't know, especially not when they claim to be from a business or government office.

    There was scam run just last month with texts claiming to be from the IRS.

    Such a waste of time. Data gathering like this is just stupid.

  • sent text messages to 7,500 potential witnesses of a homicide using phone numbers from a nearby cell tower's logs ... Investigators will also consider calling the numbers of people who don't respond voluntarily, but they would be required to obtain another court order to do so.

    I'm not certain it makes any goddamn sense to privilege textual communication over audio communication. Yes, I'm certain it's a bit more awkward having to talk to a police officer in real time, but I find it a bit strange that they're lowing the legal bar for texts. Is there any prior precedent for this?

  • by QuietLagoon ( 813062 ) on Sunday October 30, 2016 @11:23AM (#53178817)
    The way I use my cell phone, if I get a text from an unknown person, it is erased without being read. The same goes for phone calls from unknown people.
  • You have 4 new messages:
    police: Stop resisting!!!
    police: Stop resisting!!!
    police: Stop resisting!!!
    police: Stop resisting!!!

  • It should be easy to detect if a cellphone tower a phone is connected to is NOT a legit tower. you used to be able to set your cellphone to only connect to a specific tower, now you are stuck with the dumbed down OS that keeps this stuff from you. Anyone know of an android image that allows fine control or full data from the cellular hardware?

  • by FrozenGeek ( 1219968 ) on Sunday October 30, 2016 @03:14PM (#53179811)
    how would I be certain that the text message was not a spoof? I don't answer phone calls from numbers that are not in my contacts list. I don't respond to texts whose origin is questionable.
  • Tremble, lowly plebes. Bad things happened near you. This nasty crime happened right nearby you, you were lucky not to be the victim and should consider spending more money on police to prevent such things. We know you were there, maybe you were the perpetrator? We'd like to ask you some questions, it's voluntary although I must say I wouldn't expect the perpetrator to respond.

    PS: we promise not to expand the program to "voluntary but not responding makes you the prime suspect" nor to "response is mandatory

  • I do not use a smartphone(Moto G4) the way most people do. I do not have a SIM card installed.

    I connect my smartphone via WIFI with a prepaid MIFI device (2GB/60 days for $35, $17.50/month, Verizon prepaid plan). Once connected, I use my VPN (works great and fast). I get and place calls, and texting, with Google Hangouts/Google Voice.

    I turn off all the tracking I can on my phone, and browser, and do not use social media services. I do not have GPS enabled.

    I would not get a text message in this case. I

    • by eWarz ( 610883 )
      I use a major CellCo (Verizon) as my provider. I use every social network known to man. I pay around $5/gb a month. I don't have issues with whatever you are trying to avoid. BTW what ARE you trying to avoid? Also, I guarantee there is a difference in quality. CellCo providers have HD/Advanced voice. No VOIP provider in the world offers this (almost every US CellCo limits this to themselves or other CellCos), and even if they did, your VPN connection likely would not meet the bandwidth requirements r
  • Those polices are stupid with technology, aren't they? If the (not really) good guys can do it, SO can the bad guys. There are reasons why physical mail is still used as official, because phishing scam is extremely common.

    Now there will be more fake police text message demanding for your credit card and personal information.

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