Track­ing phones, Google can act like a po­lice drag­net

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - News - BY JENNIFER VALENTINO-DEVRIES

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.”

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