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The untold story of how mobile phone location data assists police investigations

Updated: Jun 24

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Police services have been using lawfully-authorized access to mobile location data for years to help solve some of the world’s most heinous crimes. But rarely do they explain how important this is to their investigations or publicize how they use it. The recent quadruple murder in Moscow, Idaho (USA) is an exception to this rule, with police revealing just how critical the combination of historic cellphone data and CCTV evidence was to the suspect’s arrest and the case against him.

How Idaho police used cellphone data in their investigation

When four students from the University of Idaho were murdered on 13 November 2022, the local community, which hadn’t experienced a murder in 15 years, was horrified. Information flooded in – 15,000 tips in all.

Police were able to obtain CCTV footage which captured an image of a Hyundai Elantra in the area of the killings. Investigators used a subpoena to lawfully obtain cell site location information specifically for the phone of the driver, which revealed he was near the victims' residence around 9am on 13 November – approximately five hours after the killings.

A historic review of mobile phone location data indicated that the suspect had been near the victims’ residence at least 12 times between June 2022 and 13 November – always in the evening or early morning – despite not living nearby. In fact, on 21 August, the suspect’s phone connected to a cell tower that provided coverage to the victims’ home between 10.34pm and 11.35pm. On the night of the murders, cell site location data showed the phone was at or near the suspect’s apartment at 2.42am. The phone then began moving south before it stopped connecting at 2.47am – showing it had either been turned off, run out of battery, or been put into flight mode. Two hours later, at 4.48am, the phone reconnected to network towers adjacent to state highway 95 before traveling south, west and then north, arriving back at the suspect’s apartment at 5.30am. This data was linked to CCTV data of the suspect’s car.

The phone’s movements painted a damning picture. The suspect will have to justify in court why he was out of his apartment in the early hours of the morning and why he turned his phone off during the time the murders took place. Prosecutors will also argue that the suspect scoped out the victims’ home at least a dozen times prior to the murders – supported by phone location data.

But was the data legally obtained?

Questions were immediately raised in the US as to the legality of the police’s use of mobile location data – even for a case as serious as this. If the data were not legally obtained then it could be thrown out by the judge, undermining the prosecutor’s case.

Historically, US authorities could apply for a court order to access cell phone data under the Stored Communications Act (SCA). The thinking at the time was that cell phone users couldn’t expect privacy because records were already in the hands of a third party (the MNO). This situation was challenged in 2018 as a result of the Carpenter v United States case. Carpenter saw the Supreme Court raise the legal standard for applying for cellphone data - requiring police to gain a search warrant if they needed access to more than seven days of data.

In the Idaho case, the police were fully compliant with the rules – first seeking a search warrant for two days of data, centered around the time of the murders. After they had reviewed this data they requested a warrant for data between June and December.

The Idaho murder investigation illustrates how important historic cellphone location data can be, but equally how important it is that data is legally obtained and only supplied for the authorized period of time. Supplying more data than is authorized could undermine a subsequent court case and put MNOs in breach of data protection legislation.

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