How Police and Courts are Misusing Unreliable IP Address Information and What They Can Do to Better Verify Electronic Tips

The digital revolution has given law enforcement more tools to help track and identify us than ever before. Yet as law enforcement increasingly relies on electronic evidence to investigate crimes, one of the most readily available tools, Internet Protocol addresses (IP addresses), have become increasingly misused and misunderstood by law enforcement and judges alike.  Law enforcement too often overstates the reliability of IP address information in seeking warrants and other process (such as subpoenas), using metaphors that create a sense of certainty where it does not always exist. Additionally, courts often don’t know what questions to ask about IP address information or how to evaluate its reliability.

Although IP addresses can sometimes be reliable indicators of locations or individuals when combined with other information, such as ISP records, use of the IP address alone, without more, can too often result in dangerous, frightening, and resource-wasting police raids based on warrants issued without proper investigation. This risk is especially high when: (1) determining a suspect’s physical location and (2) identifying an individual suspect responsible for a crime. 

This paper explains how law enforcement and courts can use IP addresses responsibly in criminal investigations and provides specific suggestions to assist each of them. The well-developed body of law around the reliability of anonymous informants provides a good model for cops and judges seeking to rely on IP addresses. In short, when police rely on information from anonymous informants to obtain a search warrant, they need to include details in their applications demonstrating both the 1) informant’s reliability and similar context and 2) corroboration that the police have obtained.

Read the whitepaper here.