Tracking phones, Google can act like a police dragnet
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 exboyfriend, 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 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. 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.”
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.
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.
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.”