How Big Tech created a data ‘treasure trove’ for police

When U.S. law enforcement officials need to cast a wide net for information, they increasingly get dependent on the vast digital ocean of personal data created by Big Tech companies through the devices and online services that have engaged billions of people around the world.

As per the data compiled by four of the biggest tech companies in the U.S. Law enforcement requests for user information like phone calls, emails, texts, photos, shopping history, driving routes and other details have more than tripled in the U.S. since 2015. Even the police have become increasingly cautious and savvy about covering their tracks so as to not alert suspects of their interest.

This is the disadvantage for the recent revelation that the Trump era U.S. Justice Department sought data from Apple, Microsoft and Google about members of Congress, their raises and news reporters in leak investigations, and then pursued court orders that blocked these companies from informing their targets.

Only the first half of 2021 saw the current most data available- Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft all combined together fielded more than 112,000 data requests from local, state and federal officials. 85 percent data in those cases was handed over, as agreed by the companies. The maximum number of disclosures were accounted for from Facebook and Instagram.

When Newport, Rhode Island, a coastal city of 24,000 residents that attracts a massive number of summer tourists is taken as an example, less than 100 officers patrol the city, but they make numerous requests per week for online data from tech companies.

This is because most crimes ranging from larceny to financial scams to a recent house party stabbing at a vacation rental booked online can be partly traced on the internet. Tech providers, especially social media platforms provide a plethora of information that helps solve multiple suspicious cases and can be used for a good cause. It is like a ‘treasure trove’ of information for the police, as reported by 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 is- it’s insane.”

Cindy Cohn, executive director of Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital-rights group recently said that with ordinary people becoming increasingly dependent on Big Tech services to help them in managing their lives, American law enforcement officials have grown very savvy about technology that they were a couple of years ago.

This is the cause of creation of “the golden age of government surveillance,” as per Cohn. Not only has it become convenient for the police to track online trails left by suspects, but they can also frequently hide their requests by obtaining gag orders from judges and magistrates.

These orders block Big Tech companies from intimating the target of a subpoena or warrant of law enforcement’s interest in their information- contrary to the companies’ stated policies.

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