PROVIDENCE, RI – When U.S. law enforcement needs to cast a large net of information, it increasingly looks to the vast digital pools of personal data created by big tech companies through online devices and services that have hooked billions of people around the world.
Data compiled by four of the biggest tech companies shows law enforcement requests for user information – phone calls, emails, texts, photos, purchase history, driving directions and more – have more. than tripled in the United States since 2015. Police are also increasingly savvy. to cover their tracks so as not to alert suspects to their interest.
This is the backdrop to recent revelations that the Trump-era US Department of Justice requested data from Apple, Microsoft and Google on members of Congress, their staff, and journalists as part of investigations. on the leaks – then pursued court orders preventing these companies from informing their targets.
In the first half of 2020 alone – the most recent data available – Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft together responded to more than 112,000 data requests from local, state and federal officials. The companies agreed to transmit certain data in 85% of these cases. Facebook, including its Instagram service, accounted for the largest number of disclosures.
Consider Newport, Rhode Island, a coastal city of 24,000 that attracts a flood of summer tourists. Fewer than 100 agents patrol the city, but they make multiple requests per week to get data online from tech companies.
That’s because most crimes – from theft and financial scams to a recent deadly home party stabbing at a vacation rental booked online – can be at least in part traced back on the internet. Technology providers, especially social media platforms, offer a “treasure trove of information” that can help solve them, said Lt. Robert Salter, supervising police inspector at Newport.
“It all happens on Facebook,” Salter said. “The amount of information you can get from people’s conversations online – that is insane.”
As ordinary people have become increasingly dependent on Big Tech services to run their lives, U.S. law enforcement officials have become much more tech savvy than they were five years ago. or six years, said Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group.
This created what Cohn calls “the golden age of government oversight.” Not only has it become much easier for the police to trace online traces left by suspects, but they can also frequently hide their requests by obtaining gag orders from judges and magistrates. These orders prevent large tech companies from notifying the target of a subpoena or warrant of law enforcement’s interest in their information, contrary to the companies’ stated policies.
Of course, there is often a reason for such secrecy, said Andrew Pak, a former federal prosecutor. This helps prevent investigations from being hijacked because someone finds out, he said – “the target, maybe, or someone close.”
Long-standing opposition to such gag orders has recently resurfaced in the wake of Trump-era ordinances. Apple in 2018 shared phone and account data generated by two Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee, but politicians only discovered it in May, after a series of gag orders expired.
Microsoft also shared data on a congressional employee and had to wait over two years to tell that person. Brad Smith, president of Microsoft, last week called for an end to the overuse of secret gag orders, arguing in a Washington Post opinion piece that “prosecutors too often exploit technology to abuse our fundamental freedoms” .
Critics like Cohn have called for revisions to U.S. surveillance laws developed years ago, when police and prosecutors typically had to issue warrants to the targeted person’s home for searches. Now that most personal information is kept in the equivalent of vast digital warehouses controlled by big tech companies, such research can take place in secret.
“Our surveillance laws are really based on the idea that if something is really important, we store it at home, and it doesn’t pass the laughter test these days,” Cohn said. “It’s just not true.”
Many tech companies are quick to point out that the majority of the information they are forced to share is considered “non-content” data. But it can include useful details like basic personal information you provide when you create an account, or metadata that indicates if and when you’ve called or texted someone, but not what you have said to them. said.
Law enforcement can also ask tech companies to keep all data generated by a particular user, preventing the target from deleting it. It doesn’t require a search warrant or judicial review, said Armin Tadayon, cybersecurity partner at consultancy firm Brunswick Group.
If the police later find reasonable grounds to search, they can return with a warrant and seize the retained data. Otherwise, the vendor removes the copies and “the user will probably never know,” Tadayon said.