Individual probable cause? It’s not necessary to get a warrant anymore, at least not in North Carolina. Cops there are now getting warrants for any phone within up to a 17 acre area near a crime. From WRAL:
In at least four investigations last year – cases of murder, sexual battery and even possible arson at the massive downtown fire in March 2017 – Raleigh police used search warrants to demand Google accounts not of specific suspects, but from any mobile devices that veered too close to the scene of a crime, according to a WRAL News review of court records. These warrants often prevent the technology giant for months from disclosing information about the searches not just to potential suspects, but to any users swept up in the search.
Let’s take a look at a Google map of that area:
How many people do you think are in that area at any given time, within 150 meters of the marker? How many people live in those apartment buildings? What about the folks who are just driving by on Hill, Booker, Fisher, or Oakwood? What about the folks in the businesses–both employees and customers?
Now keep in mind that these people went months before being told that the gov had a warrant on their phone–if they were ever told at all.
We know that Google collects data about your actions and locations even if your phone’s location services are “disabled,” and in the case of these warrants, it applies to literally any device running Google services or apps. That means laptops, phones, tablets, the list goes on. Someone literally sitting at home or even just driving through the area on their way home from work had all of their devices caught up in a warrant for something they had nothing to do with, and they didn’t even know.
If you’re not already blown away, check out this quote from the Wake County District Attorney:
“We’re not getting text messages or emails or phone calls without having to go through a different process and having additional information that might lead us to a specific individual.”
Note that they aren’t saying they don’t GET that information; they’re saying there’s a separate process for it. That’s all.
Former prosecutor Steven Saad is now a defense attorney, and he points out the obvious:
“This is almost the opposite technique, where they get a search warrant in the hopes of finding somebody later to follow or investigate. It’s really hard to say that complies with most of the search warrant or probable cause rules that we’ve got around the country.”
Most of. Because some counties are already doing it. It’s becoming normalized. It will be SOP.
Concerns about the obvious 4th Amendment problems are being shrugged off, as the agencies say they “consider” the implications before going ahead and doing it anyway. That’s like how a young adult “considers” advice before going off and doing what they had planned to begin with.
In two of the cases, in fact, there was no “evidence that the arsonist or the attacker had a cell phone,” which means they were literally using a shotgun approach, throwing a wide net and pulling everyone into it. They had nothing to suggest the suspect even had a phone at the time–and literally thousands of people had their right to privacy breached for it.
This is our society now–and it’s what happens when you decide your safety is worth more than your liberty.