Google gave FBI location data on nearly 6K devices in or near Capitol on Jan. 6: ‘Big Brother is watching’

As part of the FBI’s investigation into the events of January 6, Google handed over the location data on nearly 6,000 devices that pinged in or near the U.S. Capitol on that fateful day, thanks to controversial geofence warrants that, evidently, only give reliable information when they are able to locate Trump supporters.

“A filing in the case of one of the January 6 suspects, David Rhine, shows that Google initially identified 5,723 devices as being in or near the US Capitol during the riot,” Wired reports. “Only around 900 people have so far been charged with offenses relating to the siege.”

That leaves roughly 4,823 Americans who have been accused of nothing, but were nonetheless subjected without their knowledge to invasive searches of their personal property.

It’s enough to make you want to wrap yourself in tin foil.

 

“The filing suggests that dozens of phones that were in airplane mode during the riot, or otherwise out of cell service, were caught up in the trawl,” Wired continues. “Nor could users erase their digital trails later. In fact, 37 people who attempted to delete their location data following the attacks were singled out by the FBI for greater scrutiny.”

With Google’s powerful Location History system, GPS, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth signals can be used to pinpoint a smartphone with an accuracy of just yards. While Location History defaults to the “off” position, approximately one-third of all users turn it on in order to receive such things as real-time traffic predictions, and in doing so, open themselves to the prying eyes of law enforcement.

While some might argue that this is a blatant violation of constitutionally protected rights, Google defended the way in which it handles geofence warrants.

“We have a rigorous process for geofence warrants that is designed to protect the privacy of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement,” a Google spokesperson said. “When Google receives legal demands, we examine them closely for legal validity and constitutional concerns, including overbreadth, consistent with developing case law. If a request asks for too much information, we work to narrow it. We routinely push back on overbroad demands, including overbroad geofence demands, and in some cases, we object to producing any information at all.”

Not good enough for Rhine’s attorneys, who filed a motion to have the geofence evidence in his case suppressed.

“The government enlisted Google to search untold millions of unknown accounts in a massive fishing expedition,” Rhine’s attorneys wrote. “Just a small amount of Location History can identify individuals … engaged in personal and protected activities (such as exercising their rights under the First Amendment). And as a result, a geofence warrant almost always involves intrusion into constitutionally protected areas.”

As one user on Twitter put it, “Big Brother is watching.”

But according to Matthew Tokson, a law professor and Fourth Amendment expert at the University of Utah, the motion is unlikely to succeed because, according to him, everyone at the Capitol was likely committing some sort of crime — a shocking thing to hear from someone who is meant to believe in innocence until guilt is actually proven.

“Unlike a geofence warrant for a bank robbery, the people in this location are all likely to be engaged in at least a low-level criminal trespass and in some cases worse,” he said. “There’s a stronger than usual probable cause argument in favor of the government here.”

It’s a point that makes American University law professor Andrew Ferguson nervous.

“And that worries me because the January 6 cases are going to be used to build a doctrine that will essentially enable police to find almost anyone with a cellphone or a smart device in ways that we, as a society, haven’t quite grasped yet,” he said. “That is going to undermine the work of journalists, it’s going to undermine political dissenters, and it’s going to harm women who are trying to get abortion services.”

But it most certainly won’t harm Democrats who shove a whole lot of ballots into a drop box during a presidential election.

Geofence data, as many users on Twitter were quick to point out, is what documentarian Dinesh D’Souza used in his film, “2000 Mules,” to expose alleged election fraud in the 2020 elections.

After its release, Dems rushed to discredit the accuracy of location data.

The judge in Rhine’s case will likely rule on his motion to suppress the geofence data in December, and according to Tokson, the issue of geofence warrants could go all the way to the Supreme Court.

“This very likely will be appealed one way or the other,” he said. “It’s going to be a very high-level, high-profile case likely to generate a major precedent out of the appeals court, if not the Supreme Court.”

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Melissa Fine

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