back to article Here's US Homeland Security collaring a suspected arsonist after asking Google for the IP addresses of folks who made a specific search

An unsealed warrant in a case involving alleged pedophile R&B star R. Kelly has shown how the Feds can get Google to hand over the details of people who make specific web search queries. It raises a mild concern that if Uncle Sam's request is too broad, and Google can't or won't resist the order, you could be swept up into an …

  1. Craig 2

    If there was one thing this guy really should have thought of first it was a burner phone...

    1. Richard Jones 1

      one thing this guy really should have thought of first

      Perhaps, not setting out as a career criminal and whatever else. I cannot say I have any sympathy for crooks such as him, but I wonder what other skeletons he will now have uncovered from his various closets.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: one thing this guy really should have thought of first

        "On top of all that, surveillance cameras showed a truck, matching one registered to Williams, speeding away from the scene immediately after the vehicle was consumed by flames."

        Not really sure the IT derived evidence adds so much to that.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: one thing this guy really should have thought of first

          If the initial search request to Google was deemed "inadmissable/illegal" the a good lawyer could probably argue that all the subsequent related discoveries were also inadmissible or coincidental (or whatever the legal term is) ;o)

          Not I accept that a simple search of the camera footage at the time would have included his car leaving him open to further scrutiny.

    2. fidodogbreath Silver badge

      And maybe don't sign into Google when using said burner to search for info on your intended victim.

      1. Cederic Silver badge

        I'm not sure that's material.

        Whether you sign in or not, those searches are associated with your device. A phone is quite personal so already you're under suspicion.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Just don't use Google (signed in or not)! It amazes me how many people don't know there are other search engines available, engines that don't try and track keypress and click. That's not to say the authorities couldn't access IP data from Bing, Yahoo, DDG, etc, but they also seem assume everyone of "interest" will use Google.

    3. DS999

      Leave your phone behind when you commit a crime

      The smart criminals will do something like going into a dark bar and talking to a few people so they are established as being there, sitting at a table in the darkest corner, leaving their phone taped under the table (silenced so it won't ring/vibrate) sneaking out the back way to commit their crime, then returning and talking to a few more people as they leave.

      Given how prosecutors treat "his phone pinged cell towers in the area of the crime at the time of the crime", it would be pretty easy to convince at least one member of a jury that having your phone established as being at the bar and having several people who saw you there shortly before and shortly after the crime, means you didn't commit the crime.

  2. Bonzo_red

    Presumably once the recent decision of the EUCJ has been implemented, such crime-fighting techniques will not be available in the EU.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      We don't do it anyway, this sort of effort is not spent on arson attacks against normal people.

      1. Peter2 Silver badge

        But if it was, then you'd be able to do it if you had a warrant in the EU.

      2. IGotOut Silver badge

        It's witness intimidation in a major case.

        1. First Light Silver badge

          The guy must have forgotten they weren't dealing with the local plod.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not happening all that often?

    Just who does the 'Do Evil' company think will believe that?

    {silence}

    1. Robert Grant Silver badge

      Re: Not happening all that often?

      Cynicism requires no more brain cells than naïveté.

      1. cbars
        Trollface

        Re: Not happening all that often?

        I doubt that

  4. Wellyboot Silver badge

    A narrow search is good

    Starting with who's looking for the address of a witness, then subsequent requests for any of these going near the location at specific times. I'm ok with this as a starting point for investigations.

    Guidelines for what constitutes 'Narrow' probably don't exist beyond what individual judges deem either acceptable or a fishing trip.

    1. doublelayer Silver badge

      Re: A narrow search is good

      But it is probably not going to be the most successful result. Take the evidence described in this article:

      1. He searched for the address.

      2. His phone was near the crime scene but he doesn't live there.

      3. His truck was speeding away from the scene right after.

      Maybe it's just me, but it seems logical to proceed through the evidence in the opposite order. First check security cameras and find vehicles that are speeding away right after the arson. If "speeding away from the scene" from the article really means conspicuous driving, that's not going to produce many suspects. Run each one and see if there's a reason for their vehicle to be there, and when you find a person who doesn't live or work nearby, check whether there's more evidence on that person in particular. This means checking phone location records on that particular person (if you can't establish an alibi for having the car there).

      The problem with this approach is that the order of evidence is opposite to the ease of hiding that evidence. He could hide the lookup by searching for a nearby address, by browsing through a map, by driving down a day early, all these being very easy. He could only hide his phone location history by getting a burner phone or not bringing a phone at all, which is doable with a little more effort. Getting a car that isn't connected to him is by far the hardest task. In future investigations, it might make sense to start with that kind of evidence.

      1. Blazde Bronze badge

        Re: A narrow search is good

        It isn't "His truck was speeding away from the scene right after". It's "grainy footage" of a vehicle which an expert says is "consistent with a GMC Yukon". Not definitely one, just consistent with one.

        They do also have more concrete sightings of his vehicle (with identifiable crash damage) 10s of miles away from the incident in the hours before and after but they would have needed to know what they were looking for to find those, and he appears to have removed the license plates so even with a clear image of the truck at the crime scene they would have struggled to sift through the false positives, say trawling everyone in a 200 mile radius who owns that model.

      2. Extreme Aged Parent

        Re: A narrow search is good

        You could allways use a bicycle, to access your car parked a reasonable distance away, or train station, bus stop...

        but more importantly a delayed timer on the molotov cocktail...

        Reading some of the suggestions here, were we all to get together, the law enforcement peoples would have big problems!

  5. Kevin Johnston

    Hmmm

    This is one of those 'good intentions' stories isn't it. Clearly phrased requests with a very narrow focus produced a very small pool of results leading to a clear and appropriate suspect.

    This is then the supporting evidence for the next request which may not be quite so precise but it still looks OK..etc etc

    1. Jason Bloomberg Silver badge
      Facepalm

      Re: Hmmm

      Ah yes; the entirely lacking in evidence argument that "they did it legitimately this time means they won't the next time".

      Sure, maybe they will try that, but having not done so is not proof nor evidence they will.

      I am old enough to remember when "innocent until proven guilty" used to be a thing.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: "innocent until proven guilty"

        ... or even, perhaps: s/until/unless/

      2. Pen-y-gors Silver badge

        Re: Hmmm

        Yep. But in the case of governments and law enforcement, sensible caution suggests 'guilty until proven innocent'.

        Remember the UK rules to catch terrorists - you know, people who use guns and bombs to kill people? Subsequently used to catch people who put bins out on the wrong day?

        1. DavCrav Silver badge

          Re: Hmmm

          "Remember the UK rules to catch terrorists - you know, people who use guns and bombs to kill people? Subsequently used to catch people who put bins out on the wrong day?"

          RIPA was the overarching legislation governing essentially all investigative powers by all UK bodies, from MI5 to the Post Office. A local council 'using RIPA' to investigate dog fouling was not accessing a national database of CCTV images and facial recognition software like in the movies. It would mean that some dick was letting his dog shit in a specific place, and a council enforcement officer stopped by and waited for him to show up to nab him.

          Things like that didn't used to be regulated at all.

          1. Cederic Silver badge

            Re: Hmmm

            RIPA was indeed worse than the excrement left by inadequately monitored canines.

            Sadly complaints at the time were ignored and are now overruled by spurious 'but he was going to kill people' evidence of dubious provenance.

            I'd trust the Government, if they didn't keep giving me substantial reasons not to.

      3. doublelayer Silver badge

        Re: Hmmm

        "Ah yes; the entirely lacking in evidence argument that "they did it legitimately this time means they won't the next time". [...] I am old enough to remember when "innocent until proven guilty" used to be a thing."

        They are guilty. The law enforcement entities have been found to have violated laws on data collection and privacy in numerous ways. They started by collecting information they didn't have a legal right to collect. Then they didn't delete information when the courts said they would have to. Then they used data for unwarranted purposes. The only reason those crimes haven't resulted in jail time is that these entities have the ability to decide that they don't want to investigate their own crimes, but they haven't had to hide the information about what they've done. Why do we have to give them the benefit of the doubt when they've already repeatedly proven that they will collect information and use it despite what the law requires of them? The example here was legal and appropriate for the situation, but the inappropriate requests have already come and succeeded.

    2. Version 1.0 Silver badge

      Re: Hmmm

      OK so they caught someone who was stupid and didn't think about getting tracked.

      But what about the professionals who know that anything you do on the internet is be tracked? There's a whole range of organizations that employ people who know that they should never get on the internet to do this and who would leave their phone at home (maybe letting a junior carry it from room to room) while they go out to do this "work" and then have "evidence" that they did not do anything and never left the house... "Officer, my phone's GPS shows I was at home, and my Fitbit says I was sitting on the sofa watching TV"

      1. Jim Birch

        Re: Hmmm

        That's possible, especially in tv drama, but in practice people often screw up their alibis, evasions and coverup . It's easy to miss something.

    3. tekHedd

      Percentage...

      And, of course, it's only a "small percentage" of cases; my cynical mind immediately asks "how many cases are there?" If it's a large number that sort of cancels this out, doesn't it?

      1. MOH

        Re: Percentage...

        That's a very good point

      2. doublelayer Silver badge

        Re: Percentage...

        I'm assuming most of their cases are to divulge Gmail messages or files on Google's cloud, with the small percentage being search history. Why Google needs to keep logs of search results going back weeks is perhaps a better question, but that's why we're using DuckDuckGo, isn't it?

  6. NonSSL-Login
    Facepalm

    Stupid Gets Caught

    Looking up a location on Google Maps to get a better idea of the area is something I often do after reading some news stories. Always figured someone somewhere would be able to use the search results to make me a suspect.

    After watching CSI programs im sure I have Googled "How to dispose of a body completely" or similar just out of interest, Pretty sure my search terms would set off alarm bells despite being too lazy to commit any crime.

    So thank god for VPN's, random User agent switching addons, noscript, pi-holes and all the little things you can run to not appear on a watchlist and waste the time of authorities.

    From knowing years ago that they were flagging people who took certain books out of a library and to now knowing about mass surveillance post Snowden, everyone, including criminals should know what they are doing is logged and traceable.

    At least everyone should know by now you don't take your mobile phone out with you to commit a crime. That situation should only happen if its spur of the moment of you are stupid.

    P.S.After hearing how IPV6 wouldnt affect privacy but knowing all along it would, here is a clear case of IPV6 pointing to someone to validate the other data (being logged in to google while doing searches doesnt help either ;P). On IP4 it would have been a shared by thousands carrier grade NAT IP address that would have ended at that router.

    1. BitGin

      Re: Stupid Gets Caught

      Pretty sure that "carrier grade" nat would allow them to go beyond that router to the actual device, hence the "carrier grade" bit.

      1. Roland6 Silver badge

        Re: Stupid Gets Caught

        >Pretty sure that "carrier grade" nat would allow them to go beyond that router to the actual device

        Nothing really to do with the "carrier grade" NAT bit.

        All to do with the log files generated; forget to include protocol and port assignments...

        Thing is with IPv6, given the way some implement it, there is a greater chance of the IP address (seen by the carrier and thus recorded in the logs) actually containing a real-world reference (eg. MAC address) that uniquely identifies the client device...

    2. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      Re: watch lists

      Years ago typing 'tails' into a search engine put you on a watch list. I am sure downloading the software for a pi-hole and using a VPN do the same today.

      1. sitta_europea Silver badge

        Re: watch lists

        "Years ago typing 'tails' into a search engine put you on a watch list. ..."

        I can Trump that.

        I once typed "nursing vixen". Boy, was that an eye-opener.

        The fox recovered well, and was a friend for years afterwards. :>

    3. Sykowasp

      Re: Stupid Gets Caught

      News stories don't usually include precise addresses. Maybe a road.

      This was a precise address search. Reason for asking for the search is valid - the address is of a witness to a crime, and an action that could be witness intimidation had occurred.

      It would have sucked if you were a delivery driver looking for the address at that time, but you would have been ruled out pretty quickly.

      Hint to future address searchers - search for an address similar, not exact, to the address. Instead of 1034 The Street, look for 1028 The Street - 1034 isn't going to be that far away.

    4. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: Stupid Gets Caught

      At least everyone should know by now you don't take your mobile phone out with you to commit a crime.

      You're thinking like an IT person, not a crim. Most crims have about zero IT knowlefge and really haven't a clue about "tracking".

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    One can imagine Google using this itself to apply pressure on Legislators and Judicary

    "We know what you Googled Last Summer".

    Who needs a State Stasi when you have your own Private one?

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: One can imagine Google using this itself to apply pressure on Legislators and Judicary

      For all we know, this is standard practice. Google seems to get away a lot of crap that anyone else would probably be at a minimum, investigate for.

  8. StrangerHereMyself

    Exactly this

    Exactly this is why I use Tor browser to search the web looking for something that might be misinterpreted by some stupid LEA official.

    The problem with these stupid computers is that these kind of searches are possible. And if it's feasibly LEA wants to use it because child porn and terrorism.

  9. astounded1

    The Goog Don't Track Me Not Never...Uhhhhh....

    I search for a paper shredder. Every website I later look at has paper shredder ads. The Goog don't track me. I search for some trabs, trainers like. For weeks and months, every website I see has a trab ad. The Goog don't track me. Every search for any item, there they are over and over, all the items I searched everywhere I go.

    But the Goog don't track me. The 5G don't track me. The 4G don't track me. The Alexa don't. The Siri don't. Except, I sneeze near Alexa or Siri, and I get ads for masks, pills, inhalers and Theraflu for weeks.

    But - nobody tracks me.

    Ah, bullshit. Who even needs a warrant? The Goog, the Amazon, the Appple, the O2, 3, T and more. They all track me and I am nobody. So, why?

    This arson ejat - he stupid as mud.

    1. Cederic Silver badge

      Re: The Goog Don't Track Me Not Never...Uhhhhh....

      umm

      wtf is a trab?

      1. Jan 0 Silver badge

        Trabs?

        @Cederic

        Read astounded1's post, he's already told you!

        1. Cederic Silver badge

          Re: Trabs?

          I'm sorry, I was reading it in English. Silly of me.

    2. Captain Boing

      Re: The Goog Don't Track Me Not Never...Uhhhhh....

      I think it is even worse. I had a phone conversation with my mother about getting her fridge repaired... she is 86 and has trouble with the TV remote so absolutely no interwebs involved. For weeks after I am getting ad's for fridge repairs and new ones but even "refrigerator repairs in <your mum's town>". This was a voice call on an android phone. You join the dots

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What an idiot

    He should have used DuckDuckGo

    <joke icon>

    1. TimMaher Silver badge
      Joke

      Re: What an idiot

      And Duck should have been installed on a burner that talked to the network through a pi-hole that in turn was attached to a public network in a city centre cafe.

      He would be wearing a face mask of course. Except when he took a sip of coffee.

    2. fidodogbreath Silver badge

      Re: What an idiot

      DDG uses Bing for searches, so he would have been doubly safe.

  11. trindflo

    I'm supposed to feel good about this?

    "These data demands represent less than 1 per cent of total warrants and a small fraction of the overall legal demands for user data that we currently receive"

    so if this bothers me, I should take comfort they are doing over 100x what I think they are up to?

    And this is for law enforcement - much like the old phone company, Google, et. al. have no trouble listening in for their own purposes.

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: I'm supposed to feel good about this?

      And this is for law enforcement - much like the old phone company,

      Used be Maude, the telephone switch board operator who knew everyone's business, affairs, etc. in town. Google just made so they know everyone's business, affairs, etc.

  12. beep54
    Angel

    A bit off topic but.... I once went to see a free movie and it didn't show up, so they showed a spoof of R Kelly's 'Trapped In The Closet'. It was hysterically funny. Except that after a goodly number of minutes I realized that it wasn't a spoof but the real deal. It is quite long.

  13. HellDeskJockey
    Facepalm

    Anyone who expects Google not to track at this point

    Is somewhat out of touch with reality. Google tracks you KNOW this. However that tracking can be both good and bad. If his phone showed he was at another location that would have eliminated him as a suspect. I use Google auto for the safety features and yes it does track me. But all that tracking does is provide evidence of my location. That could be bad if I'm near the scene of a crime, but good if I am not.

    In short you wear gloves and Tyvek suits to not leave fingerprints or DNA. Today you need to consider your electronic fingerprints as well. Better yet try to stay on the right side of the law.

    1. DS999

      Re: Anyone who expects Google not to track at this point

      Tracking is NEVER good for you, and since the records will exist forever you have to worry about not only what is not legal today but what it could mean a decade or two from now - doesn't even have to be "illegal" just frowned upon like associating with the "wrong" people or hobbies or whatever.

      1. gnasher729 Silver badge

        Re: Anyone who expects Google not to track at this point

        “Never Good for you”. Not quite the same, but my grandson had a black box in his car to save on car insurance. Then someone drove in his car at a crossing. When the other driver saw my 18 year old grandson he swore blind that he had gone 50 in a 30 mile zone. Unfortunately for the guy, the black box showed he’d been doing 25. Saved him quite a bit of money.

        1. John Robson Silver badge

          Re: Anyone who expects Google not to track at this point

          They need to be compulsory for all vehicles.

          Be good to have some sort of login for them (or maybe just a drivers face photo every rand(30) seconds) as well.

          1. Roland6 Silver badge

            Re: Anyone who expects Google not to track at this point

            Re: black box

            >They need to be compulsory for all vehicles.

            There are moves to make dashcams compulsory in new cars - many manufacturers are starting to fit as standard, not exactly onerous given the cameras already being fitted for the driver assist functions.

          2. DS999
            Mushroom

            Re: Anyone who expects Google not to track at this point

            So do you want CCTV cameras to be mandatory around all houses, to catch criminals who try to break in? Why not in every room of your house as well, to catch people who murder their wives in the bedroom?

            Good luck with the surveillance state you want to live in, but keep it the hell away from my country!

            1. Jim Birch

              Re: Anyone who expects Google not to track at this point

              The surveillance state might be coming whether you like it or not. It's mostly private and legal, and the cost is trending towards zero. For me, that makes it smarter to choose some workable middle way. But I'm not one to casually deflate anyone's Manichean worldview. Identity can mean different things, can't it?

            2. John Robson Silver badge

              Re: Anyone who expects Google not to track at this point

              No - but the current attitude towards motoring criminality needs serious redress.

              Houses are not lethal weapons which result in the deaths of thousands of *other* people every year. They occasionally result in the deaths of their occupants, but even that is vanishingly rare.

              Many households do now have surveillance cameras - most people are happy to have them stream to some random "cloud" provider, I keep my data onsite, with replication of a low frame rate feed to an offsite location I control.

              Motor vehicles *are* lethal weapons, and their use is already licensed. To add the requirement for a *local storage* black box which can be queried by direct physical access to the vehicle by the appropriate authorities is, IMHO, a reasonable compromise: allowing accidents to actually be investigated, and those responsible to be appropriately penalised (i.e. have their licenses removed for short, but geometrically increasing time periods), without providing the capability for mass surveillance.

              The number of cases which are fobbed off with a "we don't know who was driving" or a "we don't know which of the two vehicles owned by this company it was" is fucking ridiculous. If you can't say who was driving on a road at a given time in your vehicle then you should be legally responsible for the actions taken.

              1. John Robson Silver badge

                Re: Anyone who expects Google not to track at this point

                I assume the person who has downvoted this without response thinks that motorists should be unlicensed and unmonitored and that doing 70 past a primary school at arrival time is their god given right, and the mere human rights of the parents and kids to continue to live be damned.

      2. HellDeskJockey

        Re: Anyone who expects Google not to track at this point

        Too late I'm already associating with the "wrong" people. But if you don't want to be tracked then don't use software or devices that track you. A lot of the old mafia guys in the US did not even have a landline phone in their house to thwart wiretaps. Also I'm always in favor of opt out options. I may or may not allow companies to track me depending on the circumstances. As long as I make the choice that is acceptable.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    .....and another cute trick......

    ......to provide some misdirection to tracking......is to hijack someone else's WiFi. A more ethical approach is to use the "free" WiFi in a coffee shop....or maybe to go to the coffee shop and use the "free" WiFi in the shop next door! The disclosed IP address then doesn't point at the person making a Google Maps query.

    *

    Of course, doing this and then checking your own Google Mail, or your own FB account.........

    *

    Lots of options......

  15. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Gimp

    Start of a *very* slippery slope

    "Only a few." Hundred a day that is.

    "Narrow" Less than half the population.

    And WTF should the best protection against state invasion of privacy be a publicly traded corporation intent on protecting it's users illusion of privacy so it can violate them instead?

  16. davemcwish

    If I could turn back the hands of time

    Maybe if he had R Kelly on his playlist he would have thought twice before becoming the dumb criminal he is.

  17. Aussie Doc Bronze badge
    Big Brother

    Wow

    Must admit, as a budding writer I used to make sure I used a VPN and appropriate Tor browser etc etc when searching for 'how to poison somebody', 'how to hide a body', 'temperature bodies burn at' or all manner of stuff as 'book research'.

    Now I simply do it blatantly and openly but making sure I have lots of stuff in my writing software research folders (Scrivener, if you're interested) that makes it obvious that I'm writing and not actually planning to be naughty.

    But then, I guess, that's what I would want you to think, isn't it?

    Can't win, really ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    Also "We vigorously protect the privacy of our users..." Did google really say that? For the lolz, perhaps?

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Is there a mental Darwin award?

    Because this bloke is a contender.

  19. kirk_augustin@yahoo.com

    Not a shred of actual evidence. The guy could have been trying to prevent some sort of attack he heard about or by someone else he suspected of wanting to commit an attack. Since it was a rental SUV, it could ever have been arranged by Kelly to avoid payments. Very lame case. But does indicate why people should not carry cellphones. I never do. The alternative is to put it in a metal case to it can't ping.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Proves little

    To be honest if you actually carried out the search yourself and then left your phone in the car and then paid someone to go and torch the vehicle also lending them your car does not put you physically at the scene, it only proves your involvement. I say this screwhead should go to Ye Olde Gaol for a long time but it hardly proves him at the scene only assumes it was him. He could have also been an accomplice who drove “said”, crook to the scene. The phone and truck could be part payment of the intimidation. Leaves a lot of loose ends to me. A decent lawyer would argue only a minor involvement and that he may have lent phone and truck to someone to intimidate the witness and the said crook decided to torch the truck..... Google evidence seems to have only provided an element of doubt.

  21. Gene Jones

    "Don't worry, says the internet giant, this doesn't happen too often" ...until big government decides to use it for other purposes, that is.

    Fixed.

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