Thursday, June 20, 2019
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Would you feel better if Google tracks your phone, if it helps cops to solve crimes?

The New York Times reports that Google receives more law enforcement requests for location data from the company's Sensorvault database. The Times mentions arrest in a murder investigation by the Phoenix Police. The suspect was tracked down after the cops forced a search warrant that forced Google to post information about any devices near the crime scene that contained data. But the evidence that this information does not always help the cops arrest the guilty man, the man was released and the crime was pinned to his mother's friend. Those who work for Google point out that the company does not always respond to the search for location data with information on a single phone. Sometimes the data the cops receive about a single arrest warrant affects hundreds of devices.

Although law enforcement officials are excited to use location data to investigate suspects in criminal investigations, police say they can not incriminate anyone just because they appear in Google's database. Speaking of which, Sensorvault reportedly contains location data for hundreds of millions of devices nearly 10 years old. When a law enforcement request comes in, it usually looks for information from Google that relates to devices that are in a particular location at a particular time.

Police officers who talked to the police Times Only Google is able to respond to requests for such information. They point out that Apple says it does not have the capabilities to provide such location data. However, an intelligence analyst at the Sheriff's Office in San Mateo County, California says Google has experience in providing location data for most Android phones and some iPhones.

Google's information not only helps the cops find suspects, it can also lead to witnesses who may have seen or heard something important while committing an offense. Despite the obvious benefits of the Sensorvault database, some Google employees point out that the database was not created for law enforcement needs and could generate inaccurate information.

As the number of requests for information increases, the Google unit providing the data for law enforcement is overburdened. As a result, it can take up to six months for the cops to get the information they want. A Google employee says he received 180 queries a week for data from his Sensorvault database.

Google's location data "The answer does not seem like a treadmill"

Legal experts also point out that innocent people get into the location data provided by Google to the cops. While Google's information is sealed in some states, the data in others may be retrieved by the press, and an innocent person may be labeled a criminal offense in the media. And the cops have a way to circumvent the requirement of the fourth amendment that a search warrant cover a limited area and contain possible causes. To prove the probable cause, most warrants state that the majority of Americans own cell phones and Google has location data on many of these phones. That's enough for a judge in most cases.

It is not known how many of these arrest warrants resulted in arrest or conviction. A senior Washington state prosecutor, Gary Ernsdorff, has dealt with several of these arrest warrants, and he notes that Google's data "does not jump the answer out like a ticker tape and tell that man's guilty party." Suspects still have to be investigated, and Ernsdorff adds, "We will not charge anyone just because Google said they were there."

Excerpt from a search warrant requesting location data from Google

Excerpt from a search warrant requesting location data from Google

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