Police are using Google’s immense collection of location data to find criminals using warrants to request that the tech giant turn over account info from any mobile device that comes too close to a crime scene, reports Raleigh local news agency WRAL. The news service cites court records that show Raleigh police used search warrants to request that Google turn over location data for devices that were close to the crime scene in at least four investigations in the past year that involved murder, sexual battery, and possible arson. An arrest has been made in only one of those cases.
The warrants are not for specific user accounts but for any accounts that were within close proximity to the crime scene during particular times, like before and after the crime occurred. The issue has sparked fierce debate about privacy and security. WRAL also reports that the court orders prevent Google from disclosing information about the warrants and users who are affected for months.
When requesting account data, authorities used satellite imagery to draw shapes around crime scenes and mark coordinates on maps. In one warrant cited, the police request is for “Google accounts located within the geographical region defined as being within 150 meters of the GPS coordinates” and within a set time period. Accounts are not only limited to specific times, but data is also limited to that time frame, too.
The data Google gives is anonymized, with accounts sorted by numerical identifiers. The data does, however, show timestamped location coordinates for devices that passed near the crime scene. Police then narrow down the list to accounts they believe are relevant, such as potential witnesses, and ask for more explicit data points during a larger time frame. There would be further narrowing down, and police would then request further identifying information like birthdates and names.
Tracking devices is easy, given that almost all modern devices like smartphones, tablets, and laptops have built-in GPS location tracking. “At the end of the day, this tactic unavoidably risks getting information about totally innocent people,” Nathan Wessler, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union told WRAL. “Location information is really revealing and private about people’s habits and activities and what they’re doing.” The warrants affect any device running location-enabled Google apps. Raleigh police said they use search warrants on a case-by-case basis with consideration of people’s Fourth Amendment rights.
This isn’t the first time authorities have issued warrants to access location data. We’ve previously reported that police also did so for a specific user’s phone in 2016.