So Much for Privacy! Police Hunt Crooks with Users’ Google History

Google gathers so much data on its users that police are relying on that information to help solve crimes. And that has privacy advocates very worried.

Google’s phone location tracking system Sensorvault has been dubbed the “digital dragnet” for law enforcement and has been employed in states such as California, Florida, Minnesota and Washington. It’s a database of where users have been that has helped police track the location history of cell phones near where crimes have taken place. According to The New York Times it has tracked “hundreds of millions of devices worldwide and dating back nearly a decade.”

In a recent high profile case in Arizona, Jorge Molina was imprisoned for a week by mistake, under charges of murder. The police informed him that they had phone data that tracked him to the location where a shooting happened only nine months before. 

The New York Times reported that police came to this conclusion after “obtaining a search warrant that required Google to provide information on all devices it recorded near the killing, potentially capturing the whereabouts of anyone in the area.” 

He was exonerated in a display of both the power and easy misinterpretation of cutting edge data-driven investigation. The very real consequences of this are ongoing, as the Times reported that months after his release “Molina was having trouble getting back on his feet. After being arrested at work, a Macy’s warehouse, he lost his job. His car was impounded for investigation and then repossessed.”

Molina’s public defender Jack Litwack argued that, while the investigators “had good intentions” in using this new technology, “they’re hyping it up to be this new DNA type of forensic evidence, and it’s just not.”

Google employees familiar with the tracking technologies being used assert that Law enforcement use has risen sharply in the past six months.

As the New York Times summarized:

The warrants, which draw on an enormous Google database employees call Sensorvault, turn the business of tracking cellphone users’ locations into a digital dragnet for law enforcement. In an era of ubiquitous data gathering by tech companies, it is just the latest example of how personal information — where you go, who your friends are, what you read, eat and watch, and when you do it — is being used for purposes many people never expected.

Google employees have stated that frequently when their company responds to a single warrant, they respond by giving the information of dozens to even hundreds of devices. The Times cited that employees claimed Sensorvault contains location records including “hundreds of millions of devices worldwide and dating back nearly a decade.”

According to Google employees, this technique of using phone tracking data was first employed by federal agents in 2016. The Times notes that its use has spread across numerous states such “California, Florida, Minnesota and Washington.” One unnamed Google employee remarked that they received as high as 180 requests in a single week.
As the process narrows down to a few devices they believe belong to suspects and or witnesses, “Google reveals the users’ names and other information.”

Google Censorship Project