Flaws in Mobile Phone Records Free Danish Prisoners
by Jayson Hawkins
Over 10,000 criminal cases have come under review in Denmark due to doubts that have arisen about how reliable evidence taken from cellphone geolocation software actually is. As of mid-September 2019, 32 prisoners have been released as a result of demanding their convictions be overturned because they were based on faulty data.
Danish authorities also placed a two-month moratorium on the use of such data to obtain new convictions, a move that has postponed almost 40 trials. The director of the nation’s public prosecutions, Jan Reckendorff, admitted the decision was drastic but necessary.
“We simply cannot live with the idea that information that isn’t accurate could send people to prison,” Reckendorff commented to the Danish state broadcasting system.
Police found several problems with how geolocation data were collected, including mislocating specific cell towers, tying calls to the wrong towers or to multiple towers at the same time, registering only selected calls, and mixing up the sources of text messages.
Reckendorff said it was possible for such mistakes to locate innocent people at crime scenes as well as give criminals false alibis.
Jakob Willer, a spokesperson for Denmark’s telecoms industry association, stated that the software and its applications were never intended to gather evidence but rather to maintain a means of communication among users. “We should remember: data is created to help deliver telecom services, not to control citizens for surveillance.”
Other instances of flawed geolocation data have been recognized in South Africa and the U.S., including a family in Kansas that had been harassed by law enforcement “countless times” because of a digital mapping company’s inaccurate findings.
Denmark has taken a stand as the first country to officially challenge the validity of geolocation software as evidence.
“Until now, mobile data has had a high significance and value in courtrooms because this kind of evidence has been considered almost objective,” said Karoline Normann, head of the criminal law committee for the Danish national law society. “This situation has changed our mindset about cellphone data. We are probably going to question it as we normally question a witness or other types of evidence, where we consider circumstances like who produced the evidence, and why and how.”