On Thursday, the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) will send text messages to anybody who was in the vicinity of a murder in the hopes that one of them will have information that can help catch the culprit. One of the recipients may even be the killer. Others may wonder how the police obtained their phone number in the first place, or knew where they were on the day in question.
The OPP is ramping up its efforts to find the murderer of 65-year-old hitchhiker John Hatch, who was found dead near Erin, Ontario, on December 17, 2015. He was last seen alive the day before, outside Ottawa.
Now, the OPP has announced what it's describing as a "new investigative technique" for the force: obtaining the phone numbers of everyone who was in the area where and when Hatch was last seen alive, via a court order, and sending each person a text message directing them to a police website. If they follow those instructions, they'll be asked a series of online questions.
According to digital privacy lawyer David Fraser, this technique is known as a "tower dump"—essentially asking telecom companies for information about everyone who connected to a certain cellphone tower, at a given time. If the police plan on using this technique again, its future uses could have unintended effects, Frasier said.
"There's got to be a cut-off of severity here," said Fraser. "Are they going to do this after a bar brawl at a strip club? Imagine you're sitting on the couch with your lovely spouse and your phone buzzes and your spouse looks and says, 'Oh, it's the police wondering if you were at the strip joint and if you saw anything?"
An OPP spokesperson was not available for comment at the time of writing.
Last year, a tower dump request that asked for detailed information on over 100,000 individuals was ruled unconstitutional by an Ontario court. The judge in that case laid out guidelines for tower dumps in the future, and asked that they be designed to minimize privacy intrusions and the number of records that need to be released.
"[The OPP] will need to be sure that they are explicitly following the law and the Charter and all of the provisions about court supervision that apply in order to make sure that they are pursuing this matter appropriately and with all the proper safeguards in place," Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told reporters outside the House of Commons on Wednesday.
The OPP stated in a news release that they only received phone numbers from the telecoms in this case—not names or addresses—and that they limited the scope of their request.
"Where you are at a certain time is nobody's business but your own—except our constitution says that your privacy interests can be overridden by a compelling public interest," Fraser said. "Of course, solving a murder is in the public interest, and it seems like they took steps to minimize the intrusiveness of this."
So, if you get a text from the police, don't freak out. Everything seems to be by the book—this time.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.