This true crime story is like a real life episode of Breaking Bad.
An alleged drug dealer was discovered and caught after he regularly checked the status of shipments of methylone from China on the United States Postal Service’s Track n’ Confirm site.
According to legal documents filed in an ongoing federal criminal case in Massachusetts against alleged drug dealer Harold Bates, federal authorities were able to identify Bates and his drug shipments based solely on the digital fingerprint he left on the USPS site.
Bates was charged in 2014 with importing methylone along with a number of other drug-related charges.
The USPS keeps logs that record the IP addresses of people who use the postal service’s online package tracking search.
These IP address logs can be used to investigate potential criminal activity.
Court documents show that in 2013 postal investigators found 500 grams of methylone in a package bound for an address in Hollywood, FL.
Postal investigators also found that someone had tracked the Hollywood, FL package online, they also found that the same IP address had been used to track packages to an address in Rockland, Massachusetts.
The IP address belonged to internet service provider Comcast.
Investigators then requested subscriber information from Comcast and were able to locate and identify Bates as the likely person who tracked the packages.
The investigators were also able to confirm that Bates had received numerous packages from China and Hong Kong at his Rockland, MA address.
During surveillance of his Rockland residence, police retrieved two large garbage bags that they saw Bates throw in a dumpster.
The bags contained evidence that Bates was doing a lot of suspicious business with companies from China.
In December 2013, two more packages from China were on their way to Bates and both packages had been tracked by someone using the same Comcast IP address that had been used to track the previous packages.
While the packages were still in transit, a drug-sniffing dog was able to determine that both packages contained a controlled substance.
After further surveillance, Bates was arrested on December 7th, 2013.
Upon his arrest Bates waived his Miranda Rights and cooperated with investigators, admitting to the purchase of methylone from China using Western Union.
He willingly consented to searches of his laptop and iPhone and he also provided investigators with access to his email and Skype accounts.
Harold Bate’s trial is scheduled to start in federal court in Boston, MA on August 10th, 2015.
It is still not publicly known if the Florida package was first discovered by postal inspectors and then IP logs were reviewed to find Bates or if IP logs are systematically mined for potential criminal activity.
However, in a court affidavit USPS inspector Stephen Dowd hints at the possibility that IP logs from the tracking site are systematically mined for potential criminal activity.
Dowd stated the following in an affidavit:
“The USPS database reflected that an individual using a computer or other device with IP address 18.104.22.168 accessed the USPS Track n’ Confirm website to track the progress of both the Florida Parcel and Bates Parcel #1”
The package called “Florida Parcel” in the affidavit is the original package that was bound for Hollywood, FL; while the package called “Bates Parcel #1” was headed to Rockland, Massachusetts, where Bates lived.
Law professor Ahmed Ghappour told technology blog Ars Technica that Dowd’s statement seems to suggest the tip-off came from a computer algorithm that discovered the IP address link between the two different packages bound for two different locations.
Ghappour said it appears that the USPS may use a computer system that automatically mines user data on their package tracking site and looks for suspicious activity like this.