As we recently covered, Minnesota law enforcement tried to snatch victory from the expiring body of a black driver shot by a St. Anthony police officer by immediately asking an uninvolved social media company to turn over information on Philando Castile's girlfriend. The reason for this? The "affiant" swore criminals often used social media services to discuss criminal activities. This was an attempt to mine for dirt that might be used to justify an unjustifiable shoot.
One warrant was served to Facebook, along with an indefinite gag order. Facebook challenged the gag order. Ill-prepared for pushback and having no solid reason to demand the release of Facebook posts and private messages, the warrant was rescinded.
Unfortunately, another company was far more compliant.
Facebook opposed the gag order and, after weeks of discussion between the BCA and a lawyer at Facebook, the warrant was rescinded altogether. Sprint, however, complied with the warrant, and turned over Reynolds’ call records, voicemails, and cell tower information that revealed her location.
Facebook, on one hand, has a policy of notifying users about law enforcement requests for their information. Sprint, apparently, does not. That's why the gag order became a point of contention and resulted in the warrant being withdrawn. Sprint did not challenge the gag order and three days' worth of phone records -- including location info and text messages -- were turned over to law enforcement whose primary interest was finding some reason for Officer Yanez to have shot a compliant Philando Castile.
This highlights a major difference between internet service providers and telcos. Sprint may be in the cellphone business these days, but it's the offshoot of an 118-year-old phone company. The history of telcos' close relationship with law enforcement is long and unseemly. Cell service providers are more than willing to act as proxy Stingrays and provide near real-time location info to law enforcement. Both AT&T and Verizon voluntarily handed over more than the NSA was demanding, paving the way for a successful exploitation of Section 215 until its recent shutdown. AT&T was behind the inadvertently-disclosed "Hemisphere" program, which allowed federal law enforcement agencies to warrantlessly trawl its millions of phone records to search for almost any form of criminal activity.
That Sprint would put up less of a fight than Facebook is disappointing, but it's far from surprising. Similarly unsurprising is law enforcement's kneejerk response to the killing of a citizen by a police officer: disparage the dead as quickly as possible using any means necessary.