Let’s take a trip down memory lane to take a look at the Scarecrow Bandits.
Their takedown used techniques way back in 2008 that are commonly known today but were more akin to spy thrillers back then. We’re talking about cellphone tracking through the triangulation of cell towers.
A Brief History Of The Scarecrow Bandits
The Scarecrow Bandits committed a series of bank robberies throughout Dallas in 2008.
They got their nickname through the clothing they wore in their first set of robberies. They sported loose plaid shirts and floppy hats, evoking the manner of a scarecrow.
It seems that they soon realized that this garb was too recognizable. They switched to the more traditional burglar gear of black clothes, masks, and gloves.
The robberies were notable for both violence and efficiency. They carried assault rifles, handguns, and tasers into the banks and used them to threaten employees. At least one member of staff was tasered during a raid.
The gang members spent only minutes in each bank, making evasion more achievable. They used stolen cars for getaways, which also made tracking them more difficult for the authorities.
The authorities caught up with the bandits in Garland, Texas in the summer of 2008. One of the gang jumped into a vehicle and sped away with the police in hot pursuit. He eventually ran into a store, where he was arrested.
Another gang member went on the run and broke into an apartment. He took an unfortunate victim at gunpoint in a failed attempt to avoid arrest.
And another bandit rammed the squad cars of pursuing cops before being arrested.
While the Scarecrow Bandits were on their rampage, the authorities turned the gang’s cellphones into bandit trackers. There wasn’t as much knowledge amongst the average citizen (or bandit) back in 2010 that this was possible.
The FBI got access to the lots of the mobile phone companies that used cell towers throughout Dallas. They carefully examined the records of towers closest to each bank robbery.
They spotted that only two phones made calls at times that corresponded with every robbery. The cellphone companies provided the names of the two owners. Both were Scarecrow Bandits, and that was the start of the takedown.
In court, the prosecutor addressed the jury as follows:
“The cellphones they used became their undoing”.
The technology behind cellphone tracking
It’s good to understand the basics of how cellphone tracking works.
Remember that cell phones are miniature radio receivers and transmitters. They transmit data to the nearest cell tower. Towers tend to have antennae angled in different directions, which means that they record the broad direction that the data is coming from as well as the data itself.
As the cell phone carrier moves around, the phone will connect with multiple towers. This is where triangulation comes into play. When several towers are involved in a short time frame, triangulation can give a good target as to the location.
Aftermath Of the Scarecrow Bandits
When the authorities went looking for cell tower records in 2008, the legal grounds for access hadn’t been fully thrashed out.
That would be explored two years later. In February 2010, a Federal Appeals Court assembled to hear oral arguments as to whether this kind of access was legitimate without a warrant.
The position of the U.S. Department Of Justice was that no warrant was required because citizens have no reasonable expectation of privacy concerning the whereabouts of their cellphones. The argument was that there was no violation of the Fourth Amendment.
The ACLU and other civil liberties organizations strongly objected to this position.
Supreme Court Ruling
The legal arguments rumbled on until 2018 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that search warrants must be obtained to access cellphone locations. This was a tight five-four decision.
Chief Justice John Roberts said that the writers of the constitution would have believed that the exact location of an individual is a matter of privacy.