Dozens of prisoners have been released and over 10,700 criminal cases are under review after Danish police realized the software they use to pinpoint the location of cellphone users is riddled with inaccuracies.
Some 32 prisoners – some of whom had already been convicted and sentenced – were released after an external audit launched late last month revealed gaping flaws in the geolocation system used as evidence in their cases. Danish courts have declared a two-month moratorium on the use of cellphone data as evidence following the discovery that it is not nearly as reliable as previously thought, and over 10,700 cases since 2012 are being reviewed.
“We simply can’t live with the idea that information that isn’t accurate can send people to jail,” chief public prosecutor Jan Reckendorff told public broadcaster DR. While admitting that exiling phone evidence from the justice system, even temporarily, was a “drastic decision,” Reckendorff said it was “necessary in a state of law.”
Danish police discovered earlier this year that the software used to convert data from mobile towers into information usable by police would drop calls and omit other data, leaving holes in the record it created of a cellphone’s location. While that problem was fixed by March, it led them to question the infallibility of cellphone data as criminal evidence, and more problems were discovered.
Some data linked phones to the wrong cellphone towers, potentially placing innocent people at crime scenes, while other towers were registered in the wrong locations entirely. Another bug incorrectly pinpointed the origin of text messages.
Justice Minister Nick Haekkerup has set up a steering group to monitor the legal fallout of the reviews of the thousands of affected cases, starting with cases currently before the courts, verdicts on cases where the perpetrator is currently in prison, and cases brought forth by defense lawyers. Lawyers will receive a report on the review of their clients’ cases, which may be retried if necessary.
The revelation has upended how lawyers look at evidence once considered to be infallible. “Until now cellphone data has had a high significance and value in courtrooms, because this kind of evidence has been considered almost objective,” Karoline Normann, head of the criminal law committee of the Danish Bar and Law Society told AFP, adding that she hopes a client of hers convicted solely on cellphone location data will have his case reopened.
But cellphone location data was never meant to be used for criminal justice purposes, noted Denmark’s Telecommunications Industry Association director Jakob Willer, who pointed out that the mistakes were not in the data itself, but in its interpretation.
“We should remember that the data is created to deliver telecom services, not to control citizens or for surveillance.”
Denmark isn’t the only country whose citizens have been affected by the use of flawed cellphone data in policing. In 2016, two American families in Kansas and Georgia found themselves targeted repeatedly by police led astray by data glitches, while a similar fate befell a home in Pretoria, South Africa in 2013.
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