Never thought I would still see this happening…
I have personally seen warrants served on the wrong address on two occasions. The first was a drug investigation where the lead detective went to the wrong door to an apartment. The warrant was correct in having the correct address, but the detective didn’t take the time to check the numbers on the door…
The second time I witnessed a wrong door entry was when the lead detective had the wrong address on both the search warrant and affidavit. The detective never even corroborated the information to find the right address. Basically, the detective looked down the street and picked the house she thought was the drug dealer’s house. After SWAT kicked in the door and broke a few things in the process, it took all of 5 minutes to realize that it was the wrong house. The drug dealer was on the next street over…the victim house got a new door from Home Depot and carpet cleaning paid for by the task force.
Both of these warrants taught me something that I will never forget. Before you kick in the door, make sure you got the right door. After you make sure you got the right door, make sure again. Then ask your partner to double-check that you got the right door. Then get a warrant and kick it in if the suspect doesn’t open it for you.
After investigating drug crimes, I went into cyber cases. The same fear of entering the wrong house became even more worrisome since relying on IP addresses is not the same as relying on your eyes. You have to rely upon a fax from an Internet service provider for the address. In an investigation case of following a suspect to his home, it is easy to physically see the house for which you plan to swear to in an affidavit. But with an IP address, you have to rely on some third party service provider to give you the subscriber at the physical address where the IP address exists and trust that the information is accurate. That is at least one step before swearing to an affidavit to ask for authority to force your way into someone's home. Investigators must still confirm that their suspect and/or evidence is at that particular and specific address, which requires at least some legwork to confirm the physical address.
When Tor is used by a criminal, relying on the IP address is worse than a bad idea, especially since it is so common knowledge that an exit node on the Tor network has nothing to do with the origin of any data that flows through it, other than the data flows through it. I have taught and wrote about Tor as it relates to criminal/civil investigations for several years now, each time repeating:
IP address ≠ a person
MAC address ≠ a person
Email address ≠ a person
Tor IP address ≠ the address you want
CSI Cyber regularly does one thing right…whenever the cybercriminal uses Tor (proxies) on the show, the Hollywood FBI hackers don’t even try to trace it because they know that a proxy is not going to lead back to the cybercriminal. They then resort to other means to find the cybercriminal before the hour ends. Not that any of their other methods are realistic, but at least they got Tor right. Anyone watching CSI Cyber even one time is exposed to explanations that tracing cybercriminals using Tor is virtually impossible. This is the “CSI effect” in reverse.
Since TV show viewers can figure it out, you can imagine my surprise seeing this tweet today:
I don’t have access to the case reports, nor know anyone involved, but the one thing I can tell is that if this case was based on an IP address alone, I cannot fathom why no one checked to see if the IP address was a Tor exit node. Checking a Tor exit node takes about 10 seconds. The Tor Project even helps and provides everything you need.
Certainly, there are probably other details that could have led to going to the ‘wrong’ house, but running a Tor relay should not be one of those details. At least currently, it is not illegal to run a Tor exit node.
The best analogy I can give to how relying on a Tor exit node to accurately reflect the physical address is that using an envelope. Consider a criminal committing a crime through the mail (mailing drugs or something like that). Instead of putting his address as a return address, he puts your address as the return address, drives to another city, and drops the package in a mail box on the side of the street. Let’s say the police seize the package of drugs at its destination and then kick down your door because your return address was on the package. Any investigator charged with tracking criminals online must (not should) be aware of how Tor works. Even in the private sector investigating employee misconduct, or IP theft, knowing how Tor works is mandatory when IP addresses are involved. You just can't get around knowing it unless you don't mind kicking down the wrong door one day..
On side note, I am one of the biggest advocates of those who have the job of tracking, investigating, arresting, charging, prosecuting, convicting, and incarcerating predators of children. I have not a bit of compassion for these criminals and I cannot imagine anyone feeling any different.
Coincidently, I gave a presentation on this very topic at an ICAC conference in the Seattle area last year…oh well.
UPDATE: APRIL 8, 2016
Link to the search warrant affidavit: AFFIDAVIT