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In Raleigh, NC, (via WRAL) it’s been discovered that local police have issued search warrants for Google to surrender data on Google Accounts that are near crime scenes within a given window of time.

It should seem obvious to users of Google Maps that Google keeps record of your location over time. Less obvious is that even with GPS disabled, Google still has a decent idea where you are, using other factors like cell towers and WiFi networks. This is true whether you use an Android phone or the Google app on an iPhone, including innocuous ones like Inbox by Gmail.

In crimes that seemed otherwise impossible to solve, Raleigh police began in March 2017 to send requests for anonymized account data of anyone within range of the crime being committed. This anonymized information is simply account numbers and locations over time, and contains nothing personally identifiable.

Once the police filter through the anonymized info, for those that most match their understanding of the crime, they can then request non-anonymized account information about those accounts. That personal info, such as phone number and date of birth, can then be used to track down a potential criminal.

Two serious flaws come right to the surface. The most obvious and troublesome is that a variety of innocent people will be caught in such a wide net. Raleigh police used this Google tactic for a high-profile suspected arson case. The building that burned was close to the local bar scene, so it is very likely that dozens or hundreds of anonymized identities will be collected.

The other major issue is that account holders are not necessarily notified that Google has surrendered details to the police, such as personal data and location logs.

It’s stated at the bottom of each document that Google disputed the government’s right to the data without a search warrant. Doing so, at the least, shows that user privacy is a major concern for Google and that they will not just hand out information freely.

Google spokesperson Aaron Stein gave WRAL a statement to that effect.

We have a long established process that determines how law enforcement may request data about our users. We carefully review each request and always push back when they are overly broad.

9to5Google’s Take

The courts have the final say for whether the police have enough probable cause to grant the warrant. In these cases, Google is simply complying with the law. However this ability to receive data from Google based on circumstantial evidence is one that must be kept in check if we want to keep our personal information private. The US Supreme Court presently has a case on the docket about this issue.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.


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About the Author

Kyle Bradshaw

Kyle is an author and researcher for 9to5Google, with special interests in Made by Google products, Fuchsia, and Stadia.

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