Po­lice tap Google to track cell­phone lo­ca­tions

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY JEN­NIFER VALENTINO-DEVRIES New York Times

When de­tec­tives in a Phoenix sub­urb ar­rested a ware­house worker in a homi­cide in­ves­ti­ga­tion last De­cem­ber, they cred­ited a new tech­nique with break­ing open the case after other leads went cold.

The po­lice told the sus­pect, Jorge Molina, they had data track­ing his phone to the site where a man was shot nine months ear­lier. They had made the dis­cov­ery 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.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors also had other cir­cum­stan­tial ev­i­dence, in­clud­ing se­cu­rity video of some­one fir­ing a gun from a white Honda Civic, the same model that Molina owned, though they could not see the li­cense plate or at­tacker.

But after he spent nearly a week in jail, the case against Molina fell apart as in­ves­ti­ga­tors learned new in­for­ma­tion and re­leased him. Last month, the po­lice ar­rested an­other man: his mother’s ex-boyfriend, who had some­times used Molina’s car.

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 en­force

ment. 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. As pri­vacy con­cerns have mounted among con­sumers, pol­i­cy­mak­ers and reg­u­la­tors, tech com­pa­nies have come un­der in­ten­si­fy­ing scru­tiny over their data col­lec­tion prac­tices.

The Ari­zona case demon­strates the prom­ise and per­ils of the new in­ves­tiga­tive tech­nique, whose use has risen sharply in the past six months, ac­cord­ing to Google em­ploy­ees fa­mil­iar with the re­quests. It can help solve crimes. But it can also snare in­no­cent peo­ple.

Tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies have for years re­sponded to court or­ders for spe­cific users’ in­for­ma­tion. The new war­rants go fur­ther, sug­gest­ing pos­si­ble sus­pects and wit­nesses in the ab­sence of other clues. Of­ten, Google em­ploy­ees said, the com­pany re­sponds to a sin­gle war­rant with lo­ca­tion in­for­ma­tion on dozens or hun­dreds of de­vices.

Law en­force­ment of­fi­cials de­scribed the method as ex­cit­ing, but cau­tioned that it was just one tool.

“It doesn’t pop out the an­swer like a ticker tape, say­ing this guy’s guilty,” said Gary Erns­dorff, a se­nior pros­e­cu­tor in Wash­ing­ton state who has worked on sev­eral cases in­volv­ing th­ese war­rants. Po­ten­tial sus­pects must still be fully in­ves­ti­gated, he added. “We’re not go­ing to charge any­body just be­cause Google said they were there.”

It is un­clear how of­ten th­ese search re­quests have led to ar­rests or con­vic­tions, be­cause many of the in­ves­ti­ga­tions are still open and judges fre­quently seal the war­rants. The prac­tice was first used by fed­eral agents in 2016, ac­cord­ing to Google em­ploy­ees, and first pub­licly re­ported last year in North Carolina. It has since spread to lo­cal de­part­ments across the coun­try, in­clud­ing in Cal­i­for­nia, Florida, Min­nesota and Wash­ing­ton. This year, one Google em­ployee said, the com­pany re­ceived as many as 180 re­quests in one week. Google de­clined to con­firm pre­cise num­bers.

The tech­nique il­lus­trates a phe­nom­e­non pri­vacy ad­vo­cates have long re­ferred to as the “if you build it, they will come” prin­ci­ple – any­time a tech­nol­ogy com­pany cre­ates a sys­tem that could be used in surveil­lance, law en­force­ment in­evitably comes knock­ing. Sen­sor­vault, ac­cord­ing to Google em­ploy­ees, in­cludes de­tailed lo­ca­tion records in­volv­ing at least hun­dreds of mil­lions of de­vices world­wide and dat­ing back nearly a decade.

The new or­ders, some­times called “ge­ofence” war­rants, spec­ify an area and a time pe­riod, and Google gath­ers in­for­ma­tion from Sen­sor­vault about the de­vices that were there. It la­bels them with anony­mous ID num­bers, and de­tec­tives look at lo­ca­tions and move­ment pat­terns to see if any ap­pear rel­e­vant to the crime. Once they nar­row the field to a few de­vices they think be­long to sus­pects or wit­nesses, Google re­veals the users’ names and other in­for­ma­tion.

“There are pri­vacy con­cerns that we all have with our phones be­ing tracked – and when those kinds of is­sues are rel­e­vant in a crim­i­nal case, that should give ev­ery­body se­ri­ous pause,” said Cather­ine Turner, a Min­nesota de­fense lawyer who is han­dling a case in­volv­ing the tech­nique.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors who spoke with The New York Times said they had not sent ge­ofence war­rants to com­pa­nies other than Google, and Ap­ple said it did not have the abil­ity to per­form those searches. Google would not pro­vide de­tails on Sen­sor­vault, but Aaron Edens, an in­tel­li­gence an­a­lyst with the sher­iff’s of­fice in San Mateo County, Cal­i­for­nia, who has ex­am­ined data from hun­dreds of phones, said most Android de­vices and some iPhones he had seen had this data avail­able from Google.

In a state­ment, Richard Sal­gado, Google’s direc­tor of law en­force­ment and in­for­ma­tion se­cu­rity, said that the com­pany tried to “vig­or­ously pro­tect the pri­vacy of our users while supporting the im­por­tant work of law en­force­ment.” He added that it handed over iden­ti­fy­ing in­for­ma­tion only “where legally re­quired.”

Molina, 24, said he was shocked when the po­lice told him they sus­pected him of mur­der, and he was sur­prised at their abil­ity to ar­rest him based largely on data.

“I just kept think­ing, You’re in­no­cent, so you’re go­ing to get out,” he said, but he added that he wor­ried that it could take months or years to be ex­on­er­ated. “I was scared,” he said.

While Molina was in jail, a friend told his pub­lic de­fender, Jack Lit­wak, that she was with him at his home about the time of the shoot­ing, and she and oth­ers pro­vided texts and Uber re­ceipts to bol­ster his case.

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.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tors “had good in­ten­tions” in us­ing the tech­nique, Lit­wak said. But, he added, “they’re hyp­ing it up to be this new DNA type of foren­sic ev­i­dence, and it’s just not.”

Jorge Molina


Jorge Molina was de­tained by de­tec­tives us­ing data col­lected by Google, which records peo­ple’s lo­ca­tions world­wide. In­ves­ti­ga­tors use the data to find sus­pects and wit­nesses near crimes, but it runs the risk of snar­ing the in­no­cent.

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