While Google uses your location history, once enabled, primarily to send you targeted ads and other location-based services, we kind of knew that sooner or later, law enforcement would be using this as a tool to solve crimes and track suspects. There are a lot of murky waters when it comes to privacy concerns and technology companies’ role in protecting it while at the same time helping authorities in fighting criminal elements. It’s probably going to get even more complicated as technology continues to evolve fast.
A report in The New York Times says that in the past six months, there has been an increase in law enforcement requests to have access to specific location history data from Google’s Sensorvault. They use the data to narrow down devices that were in the vicinity of a specific place where a crime was committed. You might say that it is a fishing expedition, which is of course frowned upon as authorities need to show probable cause to search.
The “geoface warrant” as they call it compels Google to give the location data under the scope requested by authorities but the tech giant does not attach names or other identifying information. Authorities then narrow down the number through things like patterns of movement and then they request for further data or ask Google directly for the name, email address, and other data associated with the device.
However, the results of the analysis of the data from the geoface warrants can also be prone to mistakes and errors in identifying suspects. The NYT article cited the case of a man who spent a week in jail for a crime he did not commit simply because his phone was detected in the vicinity of a drive-by shooting. They did not consider the fact of multiple log-ins to a phone which was the case in this particular incident.
It looks like Google is the primary tech company that law enforcement agencies have been using since Apple says they are unable to provide such information to authorities. There are a lot of questions to be asked about a fallible system as well as possible violations of our privacy from both Google and legal authorities. This will be a continuing conversation as we continue to try to understand the role that technology plays in this arena.