The FBI forensics technicians couldn’t figure out how to get around the pattern lock. Apparently the technicians entered the wrong pattern so many times, they locked the phone. At that point, the only way to unlock it was to enter the Google account credentials.
So the FBI took a warrant to Google demanding Google give them the credentials — and the phone’s data.
There is no legit reason to fear Google or Twitter or Facebook collecting and storing your data to give you better-targeted advertising. However, there is very legit reason to expect that those companies will comply when the FBI sends a letter requesting that data, and that you won’t know about it until you’re in handcuffs, or just killed in a drone strike. And that is something to fear. Companies want your personal data so they can better target their ads, so companies will pay them more for advertising space. It’s a win-win. The FBI wants your personal data because they want to prosecute you for crimes.
For the FBI to read every text you’ve ever sent requires only a letter, not even a warrant. And thanks to the Patriot Act, the FBI can prosecute Google employees if they try to tell you that you’re being targeted. Without challenging the FBI, the employees can face years in prison for revealing which information the FBI requests. We’re just lucky when a company decides to sue to make these requests public, or at least inform those being spied upon. Most requests are secretive, illegal and — sadly — successful.
Why does all this matter? There are two reasons this is a bad thing. First, it makes law enforcement less effective. Second, it makes prosecution for victimless and thought crimes easier.
First, prior to 9/11, a warrant was required to search and seize property, including data. To get a warrant, law enforcement had to convince a judge that a person posed enough of a threat to others’ safety that it was worth violating his or her right to privacy and property to mitigate that threat. Warrant requirements acknowledge that data collection is an intrusion and should only happen in a very specific set of circumstances. The threat of removing the warrant requirement is that instead of only pursuing warrants they are likely to get, because the target is a clear and present danger to society, law enforcement can pick through everyone’s data to find the easiest targets for prosecution. So that guy who mentioned building a bomb once will get glossed over and they’ll instead focus on the girl who keeps texting her dealer because it’ll be easier to win a conviction.
But while they’re picking through data, law enforcement won’t just focus on crimes that are easy to prosecute. They’ll also focus on politically problematic “crimes,” such as anti-government rhetoric or (meta alert) complaints about invasions of privacy. Before Google and Twitter, the FBI tracked people whose politics didn’t align with theirs, such as suspected communists in the McCarthy era. Today, in Tennessee government “Fusion Centers” are tracking letters to parents from school principles supporting that great threat religious tolerance. And the FBI is tracking people who oppose fracking.
So if you’re going to make a big deal about online privacy, make sure you target your ire where it belongs. Because targeted advertising is kind of a dumb thing to oppose when your life is actually at stake.