Do you know where you were five years ago? Did you have an Android phone at the time? It turns out Google might know—and it might be telling law enforcement.
The data Google is turning over to law enforcement is so precise that one deputy police chief said it “shows the whole pattern of life.” It’s collected even when people aren’t making calls or using apps, which means it can be even more detailed than data generated by cell towers.
The location data comes from GPS signals, cellphone towers, nearby Wi-Fi devices and Bluetooth beacons. According to Google, users opt in to collection of the location data stored in Sensorvault. However, Google makes it very hard to resist opting in, and many users may not understand that they have done so. Also, Android devices collect lots of other location data by default, and it’s extremely difficult to opt out of that collection.
Using a single warrant—often called a “geo-fence” or “reverse location” warrant—police are able to access location data from dozens to hundreds of devices—devices that are linked to real people, many of whom (and perhaps in some cases all of whom) have no tie to criminal activity and have provided no reason for suspicion. The warrants cover geographic areas ranging from single buildings to multiple blocks, and time periods ranging from a few hours to a week.
So far, according to the and other outlets, this technique is being used by the FBI and police departments in Arizona, North Carolina, California, Florida, Minnesota, Maine, and Washington, although there may be other agencies using it across the country. But police aren’t limiting the use of the technique to egregious or violent crimes—Minnesota Public Radioreported the technique has been used to try to identify suspects who stole a pickup truck and, separately, $650 worth of tires. Google is getting up to 180 requests a week for data and is, apparently, struggling to keep up with the demand.
Law enforcement appears to be seeking warrants to access this extremely detailed location data. However, it’s questionable whether the affidavits supporting those warrants truly establish probable cause and also questionable whether judges fully understand what they’re authorizing when issuing these warrants.
According to the , the warrants frequently rely on an officer’s assertion that the fact that “Americans owned cellphones and that Google held location data on many of these phones” somehow supports probable cause for the warrant. The warrants also list GPS coordinates that supposedly “geo-fence” the geographic area for which they are requesting data, but many don’t include a map showing the area itself. Without a visual representation, there’s almost no way to tell how large or small the geographic area covered by the warrant is.
Law enforcement seems to be using a three-step process to learn the names of device holders (in some cases, a single warrant authorizes all three steps). In the first step, the officer specifies the area and time period of interest, and in response, Google gives the police information on all the devices that were there, identified by anonymous numbers—this step may reveal hundreds of devices.
After that, officers can narrow the scope of their request to fewer devices, and Google will release even more detailed data, including data on where devices traveled the original requested area and time period. This data, which still involves multiple devices, reveals detailed travel patterns. In the final step, detectives review that travel data to see if any devices appear relevant to the crime, and they ask for the users’ names and other information for specific individual devices.
As the article notes, this technique implicates innocent people and has a real impact on people’s lives. Even if you are later able to clear your name, if you spend any time at all in police custody, this could cost you your job, your car, and your ability to get back on your feet after the arrest. One man profiled in the article spent nearly a week in police custody and was having trouble recovering, even months after the arrest. He was arrested at work and subsequently lost his job. Due to the arrest, his car was impounded for investigation and later repossessed. These are the kinds of far-reaching consequences that can result from overly broad searches, so courts should subject geo-location warrants to far more scrutiny.