In the past six months, law enforcement queries of Googles mobile device location history have ‘risen sharply’, according to the New York Times.
The database can be used to narrow down where devices were geographically at a certain time (mainly used for phones running the Android Operating System but also some on Apple’s iOS). This can then be used to generate leads for cases in a multitude of areas within police investigation. It is unclear exactly how many queries Law Enforcement have made to Google over the last six months. The Times wrote:
‘The practice was first used by federal agents in 2016, according to Google employees, and first publicly reported last year in North Carolina. It has since spread to local departments across the country, including in California, Florida, Minnesota and Washington. This year, one Google employee said, the company received as many as 180 requests in one week. Google declined to confirm precise numbers.
The technique illustrates a phenomenon privacy advocates have long referred to as the “if you build it, they will come” principle — anytime a technology company creates a system that could be used in surveillance, law enforcement inevitably comes knocking. Sensorvault, according to Google employees, includes detailed location records involving at least hundreds of millions of devices worldwide and dating back nearly a decade.’
In 2018, it was ruled by the U.S Supreme Court that any authority wishing to obtain location records from Google’s SensorVault would have to obtain a search warrant, as well as being able to show a probable cause for the search. Google does this by providing a “geofence warrant”, which is a the location data within a certain area (e.g a street block) for all the devices in that area, within a given time period. Google first provides records without any identifiable information to the investigators, as the information could link to thousands of other owner’s devices.
Authorities then use this data to look at patterns of movement that indicate any potential involvement in a crime, they are able to ask google for the “name, email address and other data associated with the device”, according to the Times. Some jurisdictions will require authorities to obtain a second warrant before doing this however.
While the warrants have solved crimes, in some cases they have picked up the wrong person. The Times provided evidence for this as Phoenix man, Jorge Molina was wrongly arrested for being in the area of a drive-by shooting. Authorities acquired the location data showing that he was in the area and his vehicle resembled one at the crime scene. Molina spent a week in prison before his friends provided Uber receipts and texts which backed his alibi. Police later arrested Marco Gaeta, who was his “mother’s ex boyfriend” and had sometimes used Molina’s car as well as having a “lengthy criminal record”.
The data is extremely powerful and hopefully big corporate companies ensure that this data is highly secure and not easily accessible – although it seems a black market may thrive.