Meet Your Newest Law Enforcement Partners: Netflix And Spotify

The internet has been tripping up dumb criminals since its inception. Police used to have to raid residences for incriminating Polaroids. Now, the criminals are saving them that step. Hashtagged bragging combined with location-tagged photos of criminal behavior has Darwinned the stupidest criminals right into the hands of local law enforcement. Not resetting stolen devices to “factory settings” after stealing them also snags a few thieves, who can easily be tracked by their victims.

But in this case, it wasn’t social media or HTC Pocket Narc 4G selling out these alleged child abductors. It was music and movies.

After [accused kidnapper Brittany] Nunn no-showed for a custody exchange in the early days of December, investigators went to her Wellington home and found indications she and [accused accomplice Peter] Barr, 33, had apparently left in a hurry.

Early indications suggested the family may have been in Minnesota where Nunn had family. But those tips never panned out, leaving [Drew] Weber and other investigators with a search unlike thousands of other custody disputes.

The case inched forward as days turned to weeks.

Then, a break.

Drawing on new investigative tactics, Weber executed a search warrant and pulled records from Nunn’s Spotify account. He found it was being used from an IP address in Mexico. He later pulled search records from Netflix and Nunn’s other accounts and eventually tracked a package that Nunn had ordered to be shipped to Cabo San Lucas.

Neither company at this point offer a Transparency Report detailing requests from governments and law enforcement agencies for user information. And neither would offer any comment on this story. But this would seem to be a good time for both to consider providing this information going forward.

At this point, the only references to law enforcement activity on either site pertains to reports of fraudulent activity related to unapproved charges or stolen credentials. But obviously any service that tracks IP addresses, user activity, location data or other internet detritus is susceptible to examination by law enforcement. Services like these that are infrequently served by investigators are likely far less prepared (or willing) to challenge subpoenas.

In this case, an actual search warrant appears to have been issued, which would make the return of applicable information almost automatic.

In any case, with previous news that intelligence/law enforcement agencies using everything from Instagram to Angry Birds to locate criminals/terrorists, this news shouldn’t be all that surprising, even if the sources of the information are somewhat novel.

Convenience frequently trumps privacy, and having movies and music on tap instantly is something most people would find difficult to give up. Kudos to law enforcement for finding yet another way to track someone down, but those more privacy-minded are going to need to weigh instant access against the wealth of information collected by these services. Netflix — thanks to pressure from rights holders — has been forced to show a public frowny face re: VPN usage, and Spotify — as another IP-reliant service — is likely to do the same if the issue arises. If this pressure continues, it will be your privacy or your access, rather than a more balanced exchange.

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