On Monday, WIRED reported that Google has handed over location data for around over 5,000 devices to federal investigators pursuing cases against the people who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6 — a dragnet that is unprecedented in scale for such an investigation.
Furthermore, said the report, this handover caught up a bunch of rioters who thought they had turned off their cell phone connections or went out of their way to try to delete their location data.
"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 U.S. Capitol during the riot. Only around 900 people have so far been charged with offenses relating to the siege," reported Mark Harris. "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. 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."
"Geofence search warrants are intended to locate anyone in a given area using digital services," noted the report. "Because Google’s Location History system is both powerful and widely used, the company is served about 10,000 geofence warrants in the US each year. Location History leverages GPS, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth signals to pinpoint a phone within a few yards. Although the final location is still subject to some uncertainty, it is usually much more precise than triangulating signals from cell towers. Location History is turned off by default, but around a third of Google users switch it on, enabling services like real-time traffic prediction."
“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,” said Google in a statement. “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.”
As of press time, more than 950 Capitol riot defendants have been charged, convicted, or sentenced. Their charges range from unlawful picketing and trespassing, to assaulting law enforcement, as well as seditious conspiracy charges against leaders of the far-right groups the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, who allegedly planned out their roles in the attacks well in advance.