Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Police Mine Tech Companies for Individuals’ Information With Broad Warrants

Johana Bhuiyan, the Guardian:

Geofence location warrants and reverse search warrants such as the ones McCoy dealt with are increasingly becoming the tool of choice for law enforcement. Google revealed for the first time in August that it received 11,554 geofence location warrants from law enforcement agencies in 2020, up from 8,396 in 2019 and 982 in 2018.

It’s a concerning trend, argue experts and advocates. They worry the increase signals the start of a new era, one in which law enforcement agencies find ever more creative ways to obtain user information from data-rich tech companies. And they fear agencies and jurisdictions will use this relatively unchecked mechanism in the context of new and controversial laws such as the criminalization of nearly all abortions in Texas.

If this topic sounds familiar to you, thank you for being a regular reader. I think this is a critical topic to understand since how law enforcement, which is generally prohibited from monitoring large groups of people indiscriminately, is able to work around pesky restrictive laws by subpoenaing advertisers and data brokers. Byron Tau of the Wall Street Journal has covered this extensively, and so has Joseph Cox of Vice and reporters at Buzzfeed News. In some cases, law enforcement is able to collect information without a warrant, as Tau revealed in an article earlier this week.

Where I think this article jumps the rails is in its attempt to tie Apple’s proposed CSAM detecting efforts to the above warrantless data collection methods:

For tech companies that count advertising among their revenue streams – or as a major source of revenue, as is the case for Google, there’s no real technical solution to curbing government requests for their data. “It would be technically impossible to have this data available to advertisers in a way that police couldn’t buy it, subpoena it or take it with a warrant,” Cahn said.

That’s why Apple’s now-postponed plan to launch a feature that scans for CSAM caused such a furor. When the FBI in 2019 asked Apple to unlock the phone of the suspect in a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, Apple resisted the request arguing the company couldn’t comply without building a backdoor, which it refused to do. Once Apple begins scanning and indexing the photos of anyone who uses its devices or services, however, there’s little stopping law enforcement from issuing warrants or subpoenas for those images in investigations unrelated to CSAM.

While I understand the concern, this is simply not how the proposed feature would work.

For one thing, Apple is already able to respond to warrants with photos stored in iCloud. The CSAM detection proposal would not change that.

For another, photos are not really being scanned or indexed, but compared against hashes of known CSAM photos and flagged with information about whether a match was found. These would only be for photos stored in iCloud, so someone could disable the feature by disabling iCloud Photo Library.

Perhaps I am missing something key here, but Bhuiyan’s attempt to connect this feature with dragnet warrants seems tenuous at best. When law enforcement subpoenas Apple, they ask for information connected to specific Apple IDs or iCloud accounts. That is very different from the much scarier warrants issued based on the devices connected to a location, or the users that are connected with search queries.

Ad tech companies and data brokers have so much information about individual users that their databases can be used as a proxy for mass surveillance — that is a more pressing ongoing concern.