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“When U.S. law enforcement officials need to cast a wide net for information, they’re increasingly turning to the vast digital ponds of personal data created by Big Tech companies via the devices and online services that have hooked billions of people around the world,” reports the Associated Press:
Data compiled by four of the biggest tech companies shows that law enforcement requests for user information — phone calls, emails, texts, photos, shopping histories, driving routes and more — have more than tripled in the U.S. since 2015. Police are also increasingly savvy about covering their tracks so as not to alert suspects of their interest… In just the first half of 2020 — the most recent data available — Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft together fielded more than 112,000 data requests from local, state and federal officials. The companies agreed to hand over some data in 85% of those cases. Facebook, including its Instagram service, accounted for the largest number of disclosures.
Consider Newport, a coastal city of 24,000 residents that attracts a flood of summer tourists. Fewer than 100 officers patrol the city — but they make multiple requests a week for online data from tech companies. That’s because most crimes — from larceny and financial scams to a recent fatal house party stabbing at a vacation rental booked online — can be at least partly traced on the internet. Tech providers, especially social media platforms, offer a “treasure trove of information” that can help solve them, said Lt. Robert Salter, a supervising police detective in Newport.
“Everything happens on Facebook,” Salter said. “The amount of information you can get from people’s conversations online — it’s insane.”
As ordinary people have become increasingly dependent on Big Tech services to help manage their lives, American law enforcement officials have grown far more savvy about technology than they were five or six years ago, said Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group. That’s created what Cohn calls “the golden age of government surveillance.” Not only has it become far easier for police to trace the online trails left by suspects, they can also frequently hide their requests by obtaining gag orders from judges and magistrates. Those orders block Big 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…
Nearly all big tech companies — from Amazon to rental sites like Airbnb, ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft and service providers like Verizon — now have teams to respond…
Cohn says American law is still premised on the outdated idea that valuable data is stored at home — and can thus be protected by precluding home searches without a warrant. At the very least, Cohn suggests more tech companies should be using encryption technology to protect data access without the user’s key.
But Newport supervising police detective Lt. Robert Salter supplied his own answer for people worried about how police officers are requesting more and more data. “Don’t commit crimes and don’t use your computer and phones to do it.”
Hackers are just a migratory lifeform with a tropism for computers.